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Researchers believe COVID-19 pandemic is masking a child abuse crisis

Posted at 7:17 AM, Jun 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-03 07:17:54-04

(WSYM) — Michigan is opening up and things are getting back to normal, but then mental and emotional effects of the year will take a lot longer to fade away.

That might be true for most children, as well. They're susceptible to the same feelings of isolation and anxiety as everyone else, but they're also vulnerable to their parents' struggle with the pandemic.

Researchers believe the pandemic is masking a child abuse crisis. It's trauma schools and teachers will have to address if we're ever going to rebound.

Related: Mental health resources for children from the State of Michigan

Children have endured a number of disruptions to their lives throughout the pandemic, including social isolation and family financial hardship.

Recent research shows roughly 3 in 10 children report declining mental and emotional health during the pandemic, according to Nirmita Panchal of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Related: Association for Children’s Mental Health

"It's poor appetite and sleep. For others, it may be clinginess and increased irritability and fear," Panchal said.

For some, an increase in anxiety and depressive disorder, while others are suffering physical and emotional abuse.

A survey by the Associated Press finds reported child abuse reports, investigations, proven allegations are down by nearly 20% during the pandemic and economic downturn.

"During the previous recession, there was an increase in child abuse. So, you know, we may see that happening now as well during this current recession," Panchal added

Panchal says it’s too early to tell if that’s the case, but one thing we are seeing is more severe suspected child abuse cases showing up at emergency rooms, and more kids are being hospitalized.

"Child abuse may be down since the COVID-19 pandemic, but a lot of it is because a lot of our staff are mandated reporters," Mike Esseily, the executive director of special populations for Dearborn Public Schools, said.

He says whatever happens at home, teachers will have to deal with in the classroom. He says the district has hired more social workers with pandemic relief funds.

That’s crucial since schools are the second most common source of mental health services for 12-17-years-olds. To address these needs, Dearborn Schools say they’re taking a trauma-informed approach.

"Understanding the triggers of a human's behavior, even a student's behavior in these specific circumstances and understanding where they come from," Esseily said.

The district brought in a national expert from Western Michigan University's Children's Trauma Assessment Center to train more than 100 Dearborn staff members to identify signs of trauma. That includes signs of substance abuse. But substance abuse, disruptive behavior, and other symptoms are just a reflection of what’s going on inside.

"Whenever you have substance abuse issues, it's always typically a result of something else," he said.

Solving these issues may mean supporting the whole family. The district's social workers may need to direct parents to job services, childcare support, emotional counseling or other community services, all to help the student.

It’s critical work because if left unaddressed, physical and emotional trauma can have life-long consequences.

"They can limit quality of life, for example, they can really persist into adulthood," Panchal said.

During the pandemic, we’ve seen a drop off in all healthcare services, but have also seen a rebound in dental services and child screenings and other health care.

But a recent survey shows the number of children using mental health services is down more than 50% from before the pandemic.

And means there is a lot of trauma going untreated and kids are bringing that trauma with them to the classroom where schools have to treat children emotionally before they can approach them academically.

This is an issue every school district in the state is facing.

Additional Coronavirus information and resources:

Click here for a page with resources including a COVID-19 overview from the CDC, details on cases in Michigan, a timeline of Governor Gretchen Whitmer's orders since the outbreak, coronavirus' impact on Southeast Michigan, and links to more information from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, the CDC and the WHO.

View a global coronavirus tracker with data from Johns Hopkins University.

Find out how you can help businesses and restaurants struggling during the pandemic.

Also, get information about Rebound Mid Michigan, with stories, information, and more about coming back from COVID-19

Join the Rebound Mid Michigan Facebook Group.

See complete coverage on our Coronavirus Continuing Coverage page.