Domestic violence and child abuse are expected to spike during the COVID-19 crisis as families are confined together under the stress of diminished income and complex new routines. Adding to the problem is the difficulty facing women and children who want to escape the abuse but are sequestered in their homes.
Research has demonstrated a strong correlation between economic stress and domestic violence and child abuse. Women and children are at the highest risk of abuse are those in households where the breadwinner is unemployed or under-employed.
With millions of Americans thrown out of work by the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health professionals in the research, prevention, and treatment of victims are concerned about a coming surge of child abuse cases. Indeed, a hospital in Fort Worth saw a month of severe child abuse cases in the first few days after people were asked to stay at home.
“We knew an increase in abuse was going to occur, but this happened faster than we ever imagined,” Christi Thornhill, director of the Trauma Program at Cook Children’s Hospital, told the local CBS affiliate.
Prevention is the Key
The issue reverberates throughout a community because individuals who have been abused as children are three times more likely as adults to abuse children themselves. The effects of child abuse, beyond the obvious emotional pain and physical scarring, are a host of pathologies like alcoholism and drug abuse, reduced earnings, diminished educational achievement, increased crime, etc. Society as a whole pays an enormous price for the cascade of events that follow and social metrics that unfold.
Consequently, it’s incumbent upon a community to support child abuse prevention, says Debbie McKelvey, executive director of Windwood Family Services, which operates Windwood Farm Home for Children, a residential treatment center on a 10-acre campus in Awendaw. Windwood Farm offers an ideal place and all the necessary therapy services for children to recover from severe trauma caused by abuse and neglect and to find the hope they need for a better future.
“The earlier we invest in our children, the more likely they are to succeed. Through a community-based prevention program, Windwood works to keep children in their families’ homes by providing caregivers with the tools they need to raise healthy, happy kids,” she said.
It’s estimated that 4,000 children are victims of child abuse in Berkeley, Charleston, and Dorchester counties.
Lowcountry Graduate Center Out Front
The Lowcountry Graduate Center has been ahead of the curve in accommodating parents studying at the facility. Many students are juggling intense graduate studies with jobs and parenting duties. Babies and children are a regular feature of life at the LGC campus at 3800 Paramount Drive in North Charleston.
“To accommodate the privacy needs of nursing mothers, we have a lactation room on both floors of the building, including a private refrigerator,” said Dr. Nancy Muller, director of the LGC and Associate Dean of the School of Professional Studies at the College of Charleston.
An expert in public health, Dr. Muller has demonstrated an awareness of the need to educate North Campus staff about the issue. Shortly after moving into the new campus, Muller arranged for all staff to receive training by a certified trainer from the child abuse education and awareness organization Darkness To Light, empowering all adults to safeguard children. Muller researched and drafted a child protection policy for the College of Charleston to adopt for all facilities, including the North Campus, which was ultimately adopted and implemented.
During the COVID-19 crisis, students are not using the facility and most are home with their children, presenting a whole new set of issues. Nonetheless, the LGC helps develop the talent to prevent and address child abuse through its partnership with the University of South Carolina’s MSW program.
Michael Leach, director of S.C. Department of Social Services (DSS), predicted that cases of child abuse and neglect would spike during this period of forced isolation, telling the Post and Courier that “this has been the biggest challenge we have ever faced.” He noted that in addition to the financial and emotional stressors inside the home, teachers and school administrators are the primary reporters of abuse and neglect. With classrooms closed and children at home under the Governor’s orders aimed at mitigating the spread of the COVID-19 virus, DSS’s ability to monitor homes and carry out site visits have been curtailed or eliminated. It makes for a potentially explosive situation.
Windwood’s McKelvey says everyone in our community can play a role in combatting child abuse. “It takes an investment, emotionally and monetarily, from the community to give all children a chance to be healthy and productive citizens,” she said.