Despite the fact that, as it stands, Covid-19 is thankfully not providing an overwhelming threat to children’s health globally, they are suffering in other ways. They’re not allowed to go to school, attend camps, visit sports grounds or meet friends, meaning a gaping hole exists in which important milestones and rites of passage were missed and will never be experienced again.
For many children, it’s been boring, frustrating and sometimes depressing. However, for others, it’s been deadly, because the coronavirus lockdown has seen them fall prey to a wave of increased domestic abuse.
The Archives of Disease in Childhood, an international journal that informs pediatricians and doctors about advocacy issues such as child protection, disease diagnosis and treatment of childhood diseases, has reported a surge in domestic child abuse during the pandemic.
In surveying just one institution, London’s Great Ormond Street children’s hospital, over a period of just one month, it found a surge in new admissions of badly abused babies. Such cases have risen from an average of 0.67 in 2017, 2018, and 2019 to 10 cases in 2020 – an increase of 1,493 percent.
Ten babies – six boys and four girls – aged between 17 days and 13 months, presented with suspected head trauma between March 23 and April 23. They had collectively suffered breathing issues, brain swelling, skull fractures, loss of consciousness, seizures, extensive bruising, swollen scalp, marks caused by repeated damage, blood pooling in the brain, and bone fractures.
Dr Alison Steele, Officer for Child Protection at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, which co-owns Archives of Disease in Childhood with the British Medical Journal, said, “This is an extremely concerning report. It is important to find out if the huge rise in suspected non-accidental head injury reported at this specialist hospital is being seen by other hospitals across the country.”
Sadly, the sobering figure is likely “under-represented due to public avoidance of hospitals at this time,” the authors of the report suggest.
A silent global pandemic
The figures in the UK’s flagship children’s hospital are possibly just the tip of the iceberg, as children are at home and at the mercy of sexual predators, physical abusers, neglectful adults, violent alcoholics, and drug addicts, many of whom will be frustrated by the pressures bestowed on them.
In the absence, over several months, of teachers, social workers and authorities, with the closures of courts, and without the visits of neighbors and friends, we may never know the full extent of the damage caused to these silent young sufferers. We are – for the moment, at least – not able to see the full picture.
The fact that child-abuse cases decreased in New York City in June is typical of the Covid-19 scenario. In the first eight weeks of spring 2019, New York’s child-welfare agency had an average of 1,374reported cases of abuse or neglect to investigate each week. In the same period this year, that number fell to 672 – a decline of 51 percent. But child-protection officials saw this not as a cause for celebration, but rather a cause for concern.
“You would think that when we see a decrease in the number of incidents and reports, that would be a good thing: ‘Oh my God, that means kids are safer,’” Bronx County District Attorney Darcel Clark said in an article in the New York Times titled “Child Abuse Cases Drop 51 Percent. The Authorities Are Very Worried.”“But it’s just the opposite.”
Although it has proved difficult to substantiate accurate figures, the city’s Administration for Children’s Services, the city’s child welfare agency, depicted “nightmarish scenarios in which children were virtually trapped by abusive or neglectful adults.
The fact that there were about 11,300 in-court appearances in May 2019, and just 464 during a similar period this year, means reuniting children with parents or placing them with adoptive families has virtually come to a standstill during the pandemic.
Ireland, on the other hand, saw the number of contacts initiated by children to the self-referring Childline service surpass 70,000 during the three months of lockdown, with domestic abuse, self-harm, anxiety, and suicide being some of the most common issues raised. A total of 72,701 calls, texts and online messages were sent between March 15 and June 28 – that is, twice as many as during the same period in 2019.
John Church, the chief executive of the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (ISPCC), said, “While many children enjoyed spending time in the love and warmth of their family, for others, this was a frightening time in which they were at home with their tormentor 24 hours a day, every day.”
In Australia, meanwhile, authorities found that unsupervised children were more prone to falling prey to online threat. During the lockdown period, investigators saw a jump in searches by predators on the dark web looking for information on how to abuse those under the age of consent.
“Child abusers created and shared an online grooming manual describing ways to manipulate and exploit the increased number of children at home and online during Covid-19,” Australia’s e-safety commissioner Julie Inman Grant told The Guardian Australia. “I think of it like bees in a hive, gathering around the honey.”
Investigators also saw an increase in “capping” – a practice in which abusers take screenshots during explicit video calls with minors and then circulate them or use them to coerce other children into sexual activity. According to data provided by the commissioner, child sexual-abuse reports increased by 27 percent in March and by 37 percent in April 2020.
It’s worrying to think that children are susceptible to a double pressure of abuse. Neglectful parents leave them to be ‘babyminded’ by their phone or laptops, where they are open to a minefield of psychological and damaging abuse. It’s difficult to say how bad the situation is globally, as the pandemic is surging across countries with such ferocity that cases get lost in the storm.
This past week, the Human Rights Council held interactive dialogues on violence against children. and on children and armed conflicts. Najat Maalla M’jid, Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence against Children, noted that the “Covid-19 pandemic had increased the risk of children being exposed to violence at home, online and in the community. More than one billion children were exposed to violence every year, and decisive action is needed.”
But what can change?
Charities, social workers, and government ministers alike have reiterated time and again that children can call for help. In the UK, employees of Deliveroo, who deliver fast food to homes across the country, have been trained by the charity the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) to look out for anything unusual.
The NSPCC also insists that “if you and your family are in immediate danger, call 999. If you’re unable to talk, press 55 after dialling.” The message from governments and authorities is that the police can also remove the person harming a child from their home, and that there is always somewhere for abused people to go.
The United Nations International Children’s Fund is calling for child-protection workers to be considered an essential service, so they can respond to abuse and violence against children. It’s also calling on the international community to take note of the surge in attacks on women, and to mobilize resources, and “strengthen protection mechanisms.”
While many have been “staying safe,” others are in the most dangerous place they can be. School has been out since March, so teachers, camp counselors and social workers, who would normally be the first to spot and report absenteeism, bruises, weight loss or other issues of concern, haven’t been able to do so. With Zoom calls less frequent and online classrooms closed in some countries, they’ve had little contact or insight at all. Much of the world is opening up again, but for many, life is still a prison.
But, as ISPCC CEO John Church says, child protection is everyone’s business. “It’s important that any concerns in relation to children’s safety are reported and that children know there is support available to them.” We owe it to them to speak up.