Child Abuse and COVID

By Lance Chilton

“We’re damned if we do, and damned if we don’t!” one Child Protective Service worker told me — damned if she takes a child away from loving but flawed parents, damned if a child is not taken away and then suffers abuse or even death at the hands of her/his parents.  Walking the line between over- and under-enforcement of child welfare practices is the perilous job we give to CPS workers in the state’s Children, Youth and Families Department.

Child physical, emotional, and sexual abuse has long been found to be associated with bad outcomes for affected children for the entirety of their lifetimes.  Studies first published in 1999 by San Diego researcher Vincent Felliti and his colleagues indicated that children exposed to maltreatment and other adverse childhood experiences (“ACEs,” which also include a missing, incarcerated or substance abusing parent) are far more likely to have emotional/mental health problems, substance abuse, criminal activity and even seemingly unconnected disorders such as hypertension and diabetes in adulthood than those not subjected to ACEs.

Unfortunately, more New Mexico children are abused than children in most other parts of the country. According to the most recent data from the US Children’s Bureau, New Mexico children are almost 16% more likely to be abused or neglected than children in the country as a whole, as of 2019.

What has been the effect of the COVID pandemic on child maltreatment?  As noted, the data are difficult to find, and may be suspect when they are found. Why suspect?  Reporting of child abuse is almost never done by parents themselves – rather, it’s doctors, nurses, home visitors, and especially teachers who detect signs of abuse and are either required or feel duty-bound to report it to the appropriate agencies. It’s no surprise that reports from teachers have been down; it’s very difficult to detect child abuse on a Zoom class meeting, even if the abused child is actually in on the class.  Many children have been “absent” from class, and it’s likely that neglected or abused children are more likely to miss class than their peers.

Although we have long been taught — and it’s true — that child abuse occurs in all social strata, it’s also true that poverty and desperation are strongly correlated with child abuse. Both poverty and desperation have increased during the pandemic.  In addition, both children and parents are bound to be frustrated by the enforced togetherness 24/7 caused by closure of preschools and child care centers and elementary, middle, and high schools in the past 18 months. That frustration itself increases tension, and sometimes child abuse.

Speaking with an Albuquerque pediatrician who specializes in evaluating child abuse, I heard that both the number and severity of the cases she’s seen since March 2020 have skyrocketed. She, by the way, feels that she is doing a very important job, which helps with the heartache she encounters in her everyday practice.

Coming back to CPS and CYFD: They have a very difficult and very important job, often frustrating but with hopeful outcomes from time to time, as well. They deserve our constructive criticism, but also our support.  With changes made in CYFD leadership by Governor Michelle Luján Grisham during the past several months and more transparency and more attention to providing material and emotional support to New Mexico families, perhaps child well-being can enjoy more of the sunshine native to this state.