Child Welfare and COVID-19
By Brittany T. Smith, BS. Brittany is a Ph.D. student at the WVU School of Public Health in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences. Her primary research interest is in adverse childhood experiences and children who experience parental substance use. The research work she has done has been presented at state, national, and international conferences.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought on many complicated challenges, especially for parents, and mothers with substance use disorder have dealt with even greater challenges. One study found in a sample of 508 mothers that 39.2% of them had increased their substance use.1 There have also been increases in job loss and school closures that have resulted in changes in the family living environment meaning many families are spending much more time at home together. Many of us can see some silver linings in this, because who would not want to spend more time with family? However, we all know that as humans we need space and time to connect to others and activities we love. These changes have brought a lot of stress to them as parents learning new roles and worrying about financial stability. This parental stress is capable of having an impact on children and increase the risk for child maltreatment. In fact, the odds of psychological maltreatment of their children increased by 4.86 for parents who had lost their job when compared to parents who did not lose their jobs during the pandemic. 2 According to ChildTrends, parents, and caregivers with a history of trauma, the compounding effect of pandemic- and trauma-related stress may further impact parent-child relationships and families’ well-being. 3
Despite the knowledge that child abuse and neglect increases during public health emergencies a CDC report shows just how dangerous a pandemic can be to a child’s welfare. During the pandemic there has been a decrease in emergency room visits due to child abuse and neglect, however, compared to 2019 data there has been an increase in hospitalizes due to emergency room visits that are due to child abuse and neglect.4 This is alarming not only because it shows children may not be receiving the care they need but that the severity of the harm caused by abuse and neglect did not decrease. The pandemic has also resulted in decreased reports of child abuse and neglect because children are more socially isolated. Also, children who had experienced neglect or abuse are now home more increasing their exposure to neglect and abuse.
Child protective services (CPS) is a term that often brings fear and uncertainty into many people’s lives despite the goal of the service. CPS, a vital part of the child welfare system, has an overall mission of keeping children safe and building up families. However, due to the substance use crisis in West Virginia, the child welfare system is overwhelmed and faces challenges of finding safe placements for children. Of children in state custody, approximately 85% have a parent suffering from a substance use disorder (SUD) (Roxy, 2019).
Many mothers with SUD do not seek treatment or services because it has been reported that losing custody of a child is by far the mothers’ biggest fear. However, what happens when a mother does lose custody of her child because of SUD? Where can she turn to get back on the right track? Surprisingly, mothers who are in recovery for SUD report that they receive little to no support after losing custody of their children. The lack of support leads some mothers with SUD to believe they are being treated unjustly however, this is not the case. One mother with SUD was very clear when discussing thoughts on CPS saying, “It is not that they (CPS) want to take the kids…they do anything in their power to help”. When asked what could have improved the removal process, there was not words of resentment or disapproval but a cry for help. “There needs to be someone there to advocate for the parent and say okay this is what you need to do.”
During this time of decreased social contact and increased stress, it is important for health care professionals, friends, and family to provide support to the mothers they know are working hard to recovery from SUD. Just because the pandemic has increased stress on the family does not mean that there are not ways to prevent child abuse and neglect. Increasing awareness about food and financial resources available to families can help them cope with many stressors. Also, family and friends can use technology, such as video calls, to check in on parents or engage their children while they take a much-needed break. Parents can make sure they are engaging in self-care. During stressful times it is easy to neglect oneself, but it is important to remember no one can pour from an empty glass. Practicing self-compassion, developing a routine, and finding time for meditation and exercise could alleviate stress. Also, parents should do their best at staying informed about resources and services that are available to them to help them during tough times. 6
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- Joyce KM, Cameron EE, Sulymka J, Protudjer JL, Roos LE. Changes in Maternal Substance Use During the COVID-19 Pandemic. 2020.
- Lawson M, Piel MH, Simon M. Child Maltreatment during the COVID-19 Pandemic: Consequences of Parental Job Loss on Psychological and Physical Abuse Towards Children. Child Abuse Negl. 2020;110(Pt 2):104709-104709.
- Supporting Parents and Caregivers with Trauma Histories during COVID-19. Child Trends. https://www.childtrends.org/publications/supporting-parents-caregivers-trauma-histories-during-covid-19. Accessed April 23, 2021.
- Swedo E, Idaikkadar N, Leemis R, et al. Trends in US Emergency Department Visits Related to Suspected or Confirmed Child Abuse and Neglect Among Children and Adolescents Aged< 18 Years Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic—United States, January 2019–September 2020. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 2020;69(49):1841.
- Roxy, T. (2019, October 10). Inside West Virginia’s overwhelmed foster care system. Retrieved April 22, 2021, from https://www.marketplace.org/2019/10/09/inside-west-virginias-overwhelmed-foster-care-system/
- CASA Travis County. How We Can All Help Prevent Child Abuse During the COVID-19 Crisis.2020.