National Child Abuse Prevention Month

ORLANDO | This month, while cities across the country are educating people about the signs of abuse during National Child Abuse Prevention Month, the number of reported cases are going down. Not because they are not occurring, but because children are not in the normal places where abuse might be noticed – particularly school.

Field Support Analyst for the Department of Children and Families in Brevard County, Gina Bernstein, noted, “Things are slower than usual and numbers have decreased.” She said, of an average eight cases per day, she is seeing one. “That’s concerning,” she added. “You know there are a lot more cases than we’re hearing about. But these kids are at home and they don’t know who to call. These poor kids aren’t getting the help they need.”

“There’s job loss. There’s uncertainty. There’s increased anger and anxiety, which can result in an increased reliance on unhealthy ways of coping. People who are under stress often use substances to cope,” noted Galda. “If you put all those things together—a person who is already struggling with managing feelings and temper may reach the tipping point more easily. They get to a point where they don’t have the skills or the reserves to manage what’s going on and the risk for abuse does increase… These applied to families with income, housing and food issues compounds risk,” said Galda.

In addition, the Department of Children and Families is now serving the public online because of COVID-19. Their hotlines are in operation and investigations do continue, but people cannot physically go to them. This adds to the difficulty in trying to change gears and assist a population that is at an increased need for mental healthcare now.

Although some clinics are still open and help is still available for all who need it, CCCF has converted to telebehavioral health – online therapy with full protocols in place to protect client privacy and medical information. It can be done over the phone or a laptop. CCCF offers a sliding scale, and many insurance companies, like Medicaid and Medicare have responded to the pandemic by covering telehealth services. The clinician is in a secure location and ideally, the client is in a safe space with no or very few interruptions.

“We’re all having to find new ways of coping because of the pandemic. All of the changes and uncertainty has increased anxiety and distress for everyone,” said Galda. “Families that are already at risk for family violence may have an even more difficult time negotiating this time in our lives. Family risk factors include age of parents, history of cycles of abuse from their own families, chronic illness, lack of understanding of a child’s development, needs, or skills as a parent, income, and or substance abuse or mental health issues in the family. This list is not exhaustive, and abuse can occur in any family,” Galda explained. “Add COVID on top of that and it creates unique situations and a higher potential of abuse for young people.” Yet Galda assures there is help for those who need it. Calling a hotline or Catholic Charities can help adults and children get the help they need. There are also numerous websites that offer parent tips on how to appropriately handle situations with their children. See box insert for numbers and websites.

For all youth and parents to avoid escalating circumstances, she recommends both maintaining as much of a routine as possible. Sticking to a regular wake-up and bedtime, household tasks and school work. “Just because we are in this state of limbo doesn’t mean all the other structures should breakdown. It is that structure that helps contain our anxiety,” she said. Indicating that social isolation is a risk factor for abuse, she added, “We need connection most during this time of social distancing. Finding creative ways to do this is an important reminder that we are not alone.” Galda suggests, “Connect in whatever way you can, creating sidewalk art, walking the neighborhood, using our electronic devices to connect – whatever you can think of will help us stay together and not feel so alone in the struggle.” She also emphasized the importance of exercising to decrease “internal anxiety.”

Whether you are an adult or young person, distraction is key. “Intentionally taking care of ourselves – digging in the garden, taking a walk on a trail or reading a book” reduces stress and brings joy she says. “There is not a lot we can do to change things that are beyond our control.” Taking “an inventory of what is in our control” and doing what you can is a positive approach. Her final point, “We need to be talking to each other.” Adults need others with whom to appropriately vent and process their fears. The elderly who are particularly isolated, need interaction. Getting young people to engage gives them a sense of purpose, frees adults to apply self-care and helps them see their children as helpful in a tough situation.

As pointed out, reports of abuse are down and so are calls for help. Galda explained, “Part of what’s happening right now is this is a slow-motion traumatic event… This is coming in a slow wave. As the wave begins to crest, people don’t tend to seek treatment because they’re too busy scrambling, just trying to survive.” This is when they ignore the signs.

“There is access for people struggling to get what they need, whether it’s us or elsewhere, we can help them get to where they need to be. You may struggle and that’s okay. It is normal under these circumstances,” she assured. “That’s all part of the human condition in unusual situations. But if you need help, get help before things get so bad that addictions happen, or life doesn’t seem worth living anymore,” or you’ve hurt someone you love.

By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic April 15, 2020