By Laura Tancredi-Baese, CEO of Home Start
Since 1972, staff members at Home Start, a San Diego-based nonprofit with offices around the county, have dedicated ourselves to effectively prevent and treat child abuse. It is the cornerstone of our overall mission: to assure the safety and resiliency of children by strengthening families and their communities.
Our mission today is more important than ever before. As the nation and world battle the devastating social, physical, health and emotional ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic, one critical issue we must address is the safety of children now most at risk of abuse.
Last month, the World Health Organization published a joint leaders’ statement on the hidden dangers of violence against children during the pandemic that outlined what a collective response must include: “maintaining essential health and social welfare services, including mental health and psychosocial support … and communicating with and engaging parents, caregivers and children themselves with evidence-based information and advice.”
In addition, similar warnings from state and local officials are confirming what our own program staff are observing daily: Parents most affected by the coronavirus shutdowns are more stressed than ever.
Throughout San Diego, families sheltering in place are cut off from school, work and friends. Domestic violence reports have surged as the challenges of forced isolation, lost wages and concerns of well-being have increased exponentially. Extended school closures mean fewer eyes on kids to report concerns about potential abuse. Child abuse reports have plummeted, and organizations like Home Start are deeply concerned that dire situations and the destructive undercurrent of violence impacting children are going unreported and unnoticed.
The prevalence of domestic violence in our region without the added factor of a global pandemic is demonstrated by the number of incidents reported to San Diego County law enforcement. In 2018, there were 17,513 domestic violence incidents reported to law enforcement in the county, a 4% increase from the prior year, according to the Criminal Justice Research Division of the San Diego Association of Governments.
Read more on child abuse during the novel coronavirus pandemic:
The American Journal of Preventative Medicine confirms Home Start’s experience that homelessness and domestic violence are companion problems. The coronavirus crisis has magnified this for single women facing job and housing instability. Many have children, making domestic violence a driving factor of the swelling population of homeless families in our region.
How deep is this tragedy? According to Every Child Matters and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, five children every day in America die from abuse and neglect and more than half a million children suffer neglect or abuse every year. Again, these statistics predate the coronavirus crisis.
In the fight against child abuse, knowledge is our strongest weapon. The more we know about it, the more we can do to help those who have already been victimized and to prevent it from happening again.
Children of abuse often feel isolated and vulnerable. They are starved for attention, affection and approval. If mom is struggling to survive, it is difficult to be present for her children. If dad is so consumed with controlling everyone, he also is not present for his children. These children become physically, emotionally and psychologically abandoned.
The emotional responses of children who witness domestic violence may include fear, guilt, shame, sleep disturbances, sadness, depression, and anger (at both the abuser for the violence and at the abused for being unable to prevent the violence).
Physical responses may include stomachaches and/or headaches, bed-wetting and loss of ability to concentrate. Some children may also experience physical or sexual abuse or neglect. Others may be injured while trying to intervene on behalf of their mother or a sibling.
Sometimes you think you see adults abusing children in public and you don’t know whether you should get involved, or how. Is it your business when you see parents hitting, slapping or otherwise hurting their children? Can you help?
The answer is yes.
You should try to help if, in your evaluation of the situation, the child could be physically hurt, his or her overall well-being is threatened, or you are uncomfortable with a situation involving a child. If you cannot help by talking to the parent, or the situation is more serious than you can handle, then report the incident.
We recognize that deciding what to do when you suspect child abuse or neglect can be a difficult and confusing process. Remember, you do not need to make a decision about whether abuse or neglect occurred; you are just reporting your concerns.
If you think that a child is in immediate danger, call your local police or 911. You then have other options. Contact the Sheriff’s Department at (858) 565-5200, remain anonymous by calling Crime Stoppers at (888) 580-8477, submit an anonymous tip online at www.sdcrimestoppers.com or contact the county’s Child Welfare Services Hotline at (858) 560-2191.
Child abuse prevention is a community responsibility, and even more so as we deal with the unprecedented isolation and fears of this coronavirus pandemic. You can make a difference in the life of a vulnerable local child. Together, we can all commit to being more vigilant and involved in helping to protect our children.