Amidst the fear and uncertainty of the Covid19 lockdown in China, 26 year old Lele experienced something more terrifying than the virus itself. Her husband fashioned a weapon from a kitchen stool and beat her semi-conscious as she held her 11 month old baby in her arms. There was nowhere to go, no services to support, no possibility to flee. She had to spend several more weeks with her abuser before she could reach safety.
On the other side of the world in Greenland, the capital city banned alcohol sales to prevent growing child abuse during lockdown. In India the were 92,000 calls to a child abuse helpline in the first 11 days of lockdown. France experienced a 34% increase in abuse helpline calls by children and an even bigger increase in the number of peers and school mates calling on behalf of friends. . As closed schools and stay at home orders spread, so did the risk of abuse.This pattern played out across the world, in three ways:
The first is the way that lockdown piles pressure on households . Even the calmest, securely attached and ‘child development-aware’ parents are being tested by ‘pandemic-parenting’. Often they are working in uncertain jobs while teaching ‘cabin fever kids’ while adapting to loss of space and privacy. But most will not suddenly become abusive or neglectful. In more volatile families however, this stress can spill over into violence or exasperate existing abuse patterns. The biggest beneficiaries of #StayAtHome are the serial abusers who practice coercive control and other forms of psychological aggression. The lockdown increases the likelihood of adverse childhood experiences.
Secondly, the means of reporting severe child abuse or neglect have been dramatically reduced. According to the US Department of Health & Human Services child protection interventions are initiated by reports from teachers, social workers or nurses. Social distancing measures have reduced reporting. From the 1980s onwards increased reporting of family violence was a major mark of success and progress in protecting the rights of women and children. Momentarily, reporting is in decline.
The third issue, is complex but equally serious. In normal circumstances less than 1 or 2 % of children are subject to interventions by social workers. Yet Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) research across populations suggests between 15 and 20% of children are affected by chronic, multiple forms of abuse, neglect or dysfunctional parenting at home. This 15 to 20% of children are now in a state of isolation. Children have a biological imperative to have protective, soothing relationships with an adult and are simply not built to be isolated. When a positive relationship at home is absent, the child interprets it at risk. It over-activates their stress response system which wreaks havoc on all aspects of healthy development. Unaddressed it can lead to catastrophic health and wellbeing outcomes throughout life. But when the stress is buffered and soothed by a healthy relationship with a teacher, grandparent or friend and the child is made to feel they matter on an individual level-then the recovery can begin. Right now around the world, hundreds of millions of children have been cut off from those relationships.
This is deeply distressing. Accounts of childhood maltreatment often recall a despairing loneliness and unbearable slowness. Loneliness when the parent who should soothe the pain, is actually the source of that pain. Slowness during long pauses of waiting for a violent outburst or scarce moments of maybe feeling loved. The isolation of the pandemic amplifies this pain exponentially. It is malleable with no end in sight. Relationships with teachers, grandparents and friends were cut off suddenly with no date for restoration.
We need to act with urgency on all three issues. Governments and communities could appoint ministers or local leaders to coordinate child wellbeing during lockdown. A priority must be engagement with parents on managing stress, home schooling and positive discipline, tailored to lockdown conditions. Online and media platforms could be adapted to facilitate a conversation with families and disseminate pandemic-specific parenting tips, similar to the global UNICEF parenting hub. Social protection and housing support must be adapted to reduce the stress on vulnerable families. Behavioural insights and technology innovations should be used to understand how we can best support parents and protect children.
Expanded helplines and channels that enable neighbours and friends to report maltreatment anonymously need to be provided . Equally we need to encourage extended family and friends to maintain regular communication with children in lockdown with abusive or neglectful parents. One of the most moving stories of the pandemic so far is the upsurge in calls by friends of victims reporting maltreatment in France.
Innovation and adaptation could help teachers and social workers restore normal levels of communication with children, despite lockdown. If they are not giving lessons, can they call each child for five minutes? These measures need to be population-wide and not just targeted to 1-2% of children who are child protection cases.
Decades ago, it became normal to ensure every child was immunised against deadly disease with a vaccine. In the future we could hope for a world were every child is buffeted from trauma by a calm and predictable adult connection. A world in which we improve prospects for parenting in every family at the earliest possible stage and maltreatment is managed and prevented as a part of routine public health . All we can do now is demand protection for Lele, her baby and millions of abused children and women locked down, unreported and isolated around the world as part of our immediate and shared struggle to defeat Covid19.