Severe child abuse cases increase at Texas hospital amid coronavirus quarantine

A child carries home a meal given out as part of Stamford Public Schools' "Grab and Go Meals for Kids" program, which is part of the city's response to the coronavirus pandemic on March 17, 2020 in Stamford, Connecticut

A Texas hospital that usually sees about eight child abuse cases a month reported six cases last week alone during the coronavirus pandemic and resulting school closures and self-quarantines, according to NBC DFW. All the affected children were 6-years-old or younger, and the incidents were reported by the Cook Children’s Hospital in Fort Worth, which is located about 30 miles west of Dallas. “Thursday night, we had one child admitted with unfortunately, life-threatening injuries, which they succumbed to, as well as four other children in the emergency department at the same time who were treated and released,” Dr. Jayme Coffman, a child abuse medical director at the hospital, told NBC DFW. “It was like, we have to reach out to the community.”

Although it’s impossible to directly link the cases to COVID-19 impacts, Coffman said: “it’s hard to think that it’s just coincidental.” Shellie McMillon is a chief program officer at the Alliance For Children, a nonprofit working to protect children from child abuse. She said educators and other school workers are the largest groups of those who report suspected child abuse. “They’re usually with kids a good portion of the day,” McMillon told NBC DFW. “Now that kids are not in school, they’re at home – a lot of times, they don’t have that, what we call a trusted adult, to maybe tell about what’s going on.”

The National Child Abuse Hotline nonprofit said in a Facebook post on Thursday: “With schools closing and families staying home, abusers and predators may have more direct contact with their victims.” That’s exactly what social workers across the country fear, according to ProPublica. An unidentified Northeast child protective services worker shared with the news site a list of fears that kept her up at night. She listed: “That my families will literally run out of food, formula, diapers. That some of them may die for lack of treatment. That some children may be injured or harmed through inadequate supervision as their desperate parents try to work. That stress may lead to more child abuse.”

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Georgia Boothe, the executive vice president of the Children’s Aid nonprofit, told ProPublica her agency oversees more than 700 children believed to be at risk of abuse or neglect in New York City. She said not only does she worry about the safety of her nearly 300 workers who have to make essential home visits to check on children, but she is also concerned that already fragile home situations could easily worsen if not for agencies like hers. “Neglect happens because people make difficult decisions due to a lack of resources,” she told ProPublica.

Ronald Richter, who oversaw New York City’s child welfare agency when Hurricane Sandy hit the city in 2012, said the coronavirus pandemic poses a unique problem. “With Sandy you could take to the streets and address urgent human needs like food, medicine and finding alternate places to live,” he told ProPublica. “This feels like you are constantly waiting for guidance about how to engage in mandated services, but you are hamstrung in that you are trying to engage in human services without human contact.” 

Judith Sandalow, the executive director of the nonprofit Children’s Law Center, said she worries one of the many dangerous effects of the coronavirus quarantines is child hunger due to school closures in Washington D.C. She said 200 schools normally serve children two free meals a day in D.C., but only 20 campuses continued serving food as of Tuesday, ProPublica reported. 

“Not every family can get to one of those schools,” Sandalow told ProPublica. “If parents are at work during the hours that it’s open, kids may not be able to go on their own.” And hunger is only one in a list of potential consequences the nonprofit worker laid out as a result of COVID-19. She told ProPublica the pandemic could lead to “very significant negative costs in the form of child abuse, domestic violence, hunger and long-term educational and behavioral health problems.”

RELATED: What happens to kids who’d go hungry without free school lunches if coronavirus closes schools?

Experts advised parents, children, and community members of the actions they can take to reduce stress in homes and respond in emergency situations. McMillon, of Alliance For Children, told NBC DFW families should not delay in asking for help when they are stressed. “I think, too, if you’re feeling really stressed and really feeling anger towards your kids – it’s OK, as long as they’re in a safe place, right? Kind of a safe spot in the house walk away and calm down,” she told the news network. “It’s OK to leave your child if they’re crying or something, if you feel like you’re at wit’s end.”

Coffman urged community members to check on families they are concerned about the safest way they can. “If you see a family under stress, reach out to them. Let them know that you’re there,” the medical director told NBC DFW. “We can’t gather in big groups, we may not be able to attend our normal church gatherings, but we can still reach out as friends and family to give them a shoulder to virtually lean on.” If you suspect a child is being abused, please call 911. To contact specialists who children can speak with, contact the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child or 1-800-422-4453. 

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