Child Abuse Prevention During a Pandemic: Considerations for Early Intervention Professionals

Child Abuse Prevention During a Pandemic: Considerations for Early Intervention Professionals

By Wendy Morrison

 Child Abuse Prevention

Every April is Child Abuse Prevention month, but this year with the added stress of the state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems even more important. Families are forced to stay home, daycares and schools are closed, and parents are losing their jobs and those working might be seeing smaller paychecks. Experts are warning that all this added stress could lead to an increase in family violence and child neglect.

According to data compiled by the Department of Health and Human Services, in normal times children with disabilities (including developmental disabilities) are at least three times more likely to be victims of maltreatment.  Also, children younger than 3 are at highest risk for maltreatment. So, we know that children in early intervention programs are already in the highest risk group; during this crazy, stress-inducing moment in history, that risk is even greater.

So, what is the role of an Early Interventionist? We are all mandated reporters, but more than that we are also child advocates, a great source of emotional support for caregivers and a link to important resources for families raising children with developmental delays. During this time, that is especially important. We are on the frontlines helping to prevent child abuse and neglect.

Many of us are FaceTime-ing or Zooming into living rooms right now; this means that often we are among the few people who are actually able to see a young child other than household members. More importantly, we are meeting virtually with the purpose of talking about parenting and child development; and of course, to provide support. For some families we might be one of their few links to the outside world.

We have an opportunity to talk about stress and anxiety that a parent or child might be feeling AND the opportunity to normalize that feeling. The Stress Busting Playbook for Children by California’s Surgeon General, points out that people are having a really hard time right now, and that it is “normal and unfortunately, expected”. A lot of people might be unsure about how to manage this extra anxiety or stress and without support, this can lead to behaviors that might be harmful.

Experts have concluded that there are 5 “protective factors” that help prevent abuse or neglect and other adverse childhood experiences:

  1. Parental Resilience, is the ability of parents to manage and bounce back from challenges, solve problems and build trusting relationships with others.  
  2. Social Connections, such as relationships with family, friends, neighbors, or other community members.
  3. Concrete support in times of Need, which give families help to meet basic needs like food, shelter, clothing and healthcare to support both physical and mental or emotional health.
  4. Knowledge of Parenting and Child Development, because children don’t come with instruction manuals!
  5. Social and Emotional Competence of Children, which means age appropriate interaction, regulation and problem-solving skills.

Early Intervention services have a direct and positive impact on most of the 5 protective factors during normal times. During this uneasy and overwhelming time in addition to our regular support, EI professionals can make a point to ask specifically about caregiver stress and anxieties (ex: “How have you been feeling? I know that sheltering in place with a 2-year old can be really stressful, how have you been managing?’). Make a point to share stories of others who have been struggling, including yourself if you are comfortable. I have been sharing stories about life trapped with a 2-year old 24/7 that have been shared with me (changing or leaving out details to protect confidentiality). This helps to normalize anxious feelings and reminds people that “we are all in this together”.

For those with additional stressors around basic needs (food insecurity, health concerns, addiction support, significant money concerns, diaper needs, etc.). I have been collecting information on places to get support from the internet, county and city websites, and our local resource and referral agencies (like 211). I have found resources for food, financial help, support for undocumented families and mental health and addiction support locally and have been able to share these resources with families in need.

It might feel hard to directly address concerns around mental health, addiction support or other basic needs. In those cases, even sharing a list of local resources that includes support for those issues gets information to families in need. These things aren’t always easy for Early Interventionists to address directly and that is OK. However, if you suspect that there might be neglect or family violence going on, it is important to remember that our job is to report concerns to CPS and let them investigate.

For most families, just knowing that you care goes a long way to helping them feel connected.

Make a point during each virtual visit to ask caregivers specifically how they are practicing self-care AND what stress-busting techniques they are using (I have watched a lot of funny baby videos online lately). Exercise, meditation, deep breathing, prayer, hobbies and laughing are all stress-busting activities.

Remind families to stay connected to their community and to reach out for help when needed, none of us are alone in this. The Stress Playbook referenced above suggests not just reaching out for help, but also reaching out to help.  A kind word, rainbow placed in your window for others to see, even just a shared smile with a stranger are small things that everyone can do to make others feel a little more connected; these are ALSO all things a parent can do together with a toddler. Early Interventionists need self-care too, so, don’t forget about your own needs!

To find the Stress Playbooks follow this link:

To find more information on preventing child abuse follow this link:

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