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When Gov. Ned Lamont signed the March executive order instructing Connecticut residents to “Stay Safe, Stay Home,” the directive meant the exact opposite for many victims of child abuse. 

As residents stay in lockdown for the indeterminate future, experts have voiced concerns about child maltreatment. Andrea Asnes, the director of the Yale Programs for Safety Advocacy and Healing, said that rising rates of child abuse could be a consequence of the current pandemic. Shelter-in-place measures implemented in response to the COVID-19 crisis pose serious challenges for both the Yale Child Abuse Clinic and the Connecticut Department of Children and Families, or DCF, to deliver much-needed services to these at-risk children. 

“Our programs have been significantly affected by the COVID-19 crisis,” Asnes told the News. She explained that Yale New Haven Hospital is taking only emergency child abuse cases while expert clinicians are forced to provide the majority of their services virtually. 

The DCF similarly announced that critical resources for more than 13,000 children, such as in-person supervision of at-risk households, will be replaced with a strategy of online monitoring. This presents serious dangers for children living with family members taking part in programs such as Family-Based Recovery. This project enables drug users to live at home with their young children, provided they regularly take drug tests and allow for social workers to conduct home visits. With these visits now supplanted by phone calls, drug testing suspended, and group counseling for participants terminated, infants and toddlers in these tenuous living situations face an elevated risk of neglect or violence. 

The economy, now canted on the edge of a major recession, could compound these issues. Asnes explained that during times of financial strain, there is a pattern of rising levels of child maltreatment. The Great Recession of 2007–09 led to an increase in the number of babies who suffered from abusive head trauma across multiple regions of the United States, she said, citing a 2011 study from Pediatrics.

Michael Strambler, the director of the Child Well-Being and Education Research program at the Consultation Center at Yale, and Dr. Christian Connell, the associate director of the Child Maltreatment Solutions Network at Pennsylvania State University, recently received funding to study the impact of the current pandemic on rates of child abuse.  

“[We] are in the process of starting a study directly focused on the issue of COVID-19 related stress in families and its impact on family wellbeing and child safety (including harsh discipline and neglectful behaviors),” Connell wrote in a statement to the News, adding that preliminary data would be coming soon.

Other experts, including Yale School of Medicine psychiatry professor Robert Rohrbaugh, expect to see rising levels of post-traumatic stress disorder among children who are confined to unstable living situations or experience abuse at home during the pandemic.

Perhaps most devastating for victims of child maltreatment, however, are school and daycare closures. Although necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19, closing these facilities leaves many parents and caregivers stressed and isolated, lacking access to typical networks of support, Asnes explained. Teachers are legally obligated to report signs of emotional or physical abuse to the police and thus serve as invaluable protectors of vulnerable children. However, with the switch to digital education, these instructors will have an obscured view of their students’ home lives; their power to intervene is limited.

“Many front-line providers in our community who may recognize the signs of possible abuse no longer have direct contact with children. The combination of these factors makes the current crisis especially dangerous for our youngest community members,” Asnes said.

Despite these obstacles, Asnes said that Yale’s child abuse clinicians remain “100 percent available” as consultants to the YNHH system and the DCF, working to provide expert advice and assistance to victims of abuse.

She added that she and her colleagues are working tirelessly to empower community providers to be vigilant and sensitive to cases of abuse. Although the current pandemic limits in-person contact, Asnes explained that family members, teachers and community members concerned for the safety of children they know can take action. The DCF Careline is open 24/7 and dialing 211 will connect the caller to immediate assistance that may help save the life of a child in need.

To make a child abuse or neglect report, call the DCF Careline at 1-800-842-2288.

Sydney Gray | sydney.gray@yale.edu