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Panel: Child abuse did not spike during COVID lockdowns

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Recent statistical analysis suggests that child abuse did not increase during pandemic lockdowns despite anecdotal evidence to the contrary, a panel of child welfare experts said Tuesday.

Dr. Robert Sege, a pediatrician who specializes in treating child abuse patients at Tufts Medical Center, said during the virtual panel that reports of child abuse declined by 50% during the first months of pandemic lockdowns from March to December 2020.

He credited federal pandemic aid programs with keeping the number down, noting that families “did all kinds of things together and drew closer” during the lockdowns.

“I realized that maybe families were less stressed because the economic support brought them out of poverty,” Dr. Sege said.

The pediatrician analyzed 2016-2020 child abuse cases in the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System’s Child Maltreatment report. He recently published an article with his findings in JAMA Pediatrics.

Other panelists said government-funded lockdowns allowed families to put their health first without risking their lives for a paycheck or school grades.

“For the first time, we were encouraged to stay home with our family when we were ill and take care of our own mental health,” said Victoria Hilt, a member of the National Parent Partnership Council at the nonprofit Children’s Trust Fund Alliance.

Ms. Hilt, a mother based in Washington state, said the lockdowns gave her daughter a “different mindset” than previous generations who put work and school achievement ahead of personal health.

“I’ve been able to set an example for her that prioritizes self-care,” she said.

But some child welfare advocates who did not attend the panel said the drop in child abuse reports does not mean physical and sexual abuse decreased.

“It’s not odd to me that the reports went down because you’re less likely to report abuse while stuck at home with an abuser,” said Pamela Dean Wright, director of the Alliance for Single Parents in North Carolina.

Ms. Wright says her group of legal experts and mental health counselors is averaging a record 30 telephone and internet inquiries a week from distressed single parents seeking to flee abusive spouses — double what it received before the pandemic.

“If a stimulus check stopped child abuse, wouldn’t skyrocketing gas and grocery prices be a problem? Someone who abuses or hurts a child is going to do that with or without money because it’s in their nature,” Ms. Wright said.

Other research suggests child abuse worsened during the lockdowns even as reports declined.

Education Week reported in June 2021 that University of California, Irvine, researchers found the severity of child abuse cases worsened in one unnamed California county during the first year of the pandemic even as reports declined.


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