Keeping Children Safe During the COVID-19 Pandemic
This backgrounder shares important considerations and strategies for keeping children who may be at an increased risk of experiencing abuse or maltreatment safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The impacts of COVID-19 and measures to address it have changed the day-to-day world of children and their families living in Canada. For many children, the result has been increased quality time with parents and siblings. However, some children staying home face increased exposure to Intimate Partner Violence (IPV), along with co-occurring child abuse, sibling violence, and other adversities (e.g. exacerbation of parental mental health challenges and substance use). This increased risk is due to a number of factors, including:
- Closures of schools, childcare centres, playgrounds, and cultural, religious, and recreation centers that have limited the role of key adults who are able to support children.
- Government and community services that may be closed or operating at a limited capacity, thereby limiting where and how support is sought (e.g. family programming, counselling).
- Financial stressors such as the loss of one or more jobs in the home.
- Illness and separation of family members that can lead to increased contact with those who harm. For example, a parent may be sick in the hospital and their child is staying alone with a family member who inflicts abuse.
- Risks associated with increased time online (e.g. sexual exploitation of minors).
- Family members may be reluctant to report concerns about children’s safety due to fears that removal from the home may put children at increased risk of COVID-19.
- Individuals (e.g. friends, family, neighbours) have reduced opportunity to recognize and respond to safety concerns.
- Parents who are essential workers may be out of the home more, or need to self-isolate when home, which could mean siblings are alone or without supervision more often.
- Older siblings may need to take on additional responsibilities if both parents are essential workers and may feel overwhelmed in doing so.
- Increased stress experienced by parents attempting to juggle multiple roles with little or no respite (e.g. working from home, child-care responsibilities, home schooling, concerns about older or immunocompromised family members). This stress may be especially felt by families that already face poverty and marginalization.
Individuals caring for or working with children should continue to adhere to basic safety measures. However, additional strategies may safeguard children’s physical and mental health in the context of the pandemic. Some of these strategies include:
1. Speaking with children about COVID-19 in an age-appropriate and accessible manner.
These are not normal times and parents may be juggling many roles at once: parent, teacher, friend, and more to their kids. It is likely these changes will disproportionately affect women who tend to undertake the majority of caregiving and household chores. Family members may also be considered essential workers and continue to work outside of the home under very different conditions, while those working from home may face challenges of their own. In some situations, both parents may be home and distracted with navigating pandemic-related stressors, which may increase the risk of being abusive to children or missing signs of abuse taking place in the home by a sibling or other family member. Such stressors may be exacerbated for families who already face poverty, housing problems, social isolation, employment issues, and precarious immigration status.
4. Supporting children’s mental health and well-being.
Children are likely to spend more time online than usual due to the pandemic and may be at risk for online sexual exploitation. For children who have experienced abuse, this risk may increase. Children may be persuaded into producing and sharing sexually explicit photos or videos of themselves. Predators may pretend to be in the same age group as those they chat with through various platforms (e.g. Instagram, Snapchat, Tik Tok) or pose as a trusted adult to form a bond in hopes of eventually meeting in person. Speak with children about the potential dangers of internet activity to increase their safety. Cybertip.ca provides age-appropriate resources on internet safety.
Given social/physical distancing requirements, we need to rely more on technology to continue to meaningfully connect with children to learn of their concerns and resilience. Children’s safety requires us to recognize, accurately assess, and address threats to them and their families within the context of IPV and co-occurring adversities. Even in a pandemic, the experts at women’s shelters and children’s services are available to help keep mothers and children safe!
We serve children and their families best when our efforts are centered in and informed by the interacting realities that shape their experiences such as age, race, class, citizenship, and ability. Trauma- and violence-informed approaches, though they may be implemented differently during the current pandemic, are essential to supporting the health and well-being of children and their families.
The Learning Network at the Centre for Research & Education on Violence Against Women & Children produced this resource in collaboration with the following organizations: BC Society of Transition Houses, Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters, Manitoba Association of Women’s Shelters, Ontario Association of Interval & Transition Houses, PEI Family Violence Prevention Services, Provincial Association of Transition Houses and Services of Saskatchewan, and Women’s Shelters Canada.