As Families Struggle During Pandemic, Children At High Risk for Neglect

The coronavirus pandemic has created conditions that could put children at severe risk of neglect, researchers say.

Backlit child sitting in a dark doorway in contemplation

Researchers say the pandemic has put many children at greater risk of neglect. (Getty Images)

In addition to the economic and health issues resulting from the novel coronavirus pandemic, there is a potential danger for vulnerable children who may be at high risk for neglect, according to an alert (PDF) from a team of researchers including two UConn experts issued by The American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children (APSAC).

“Children’s needs have not been at the forefront of discussions about mitigating the pandemic’s negative consequences,” the researchers say. “Families are in an unprecedented crisis; decision-makers have a duty to help them survive it—at every stage.”

The alert was prepared by two UConn specialists in child neglect issues, Megan Feely, assistant professor of social work, and Kerri Raissian, associate professor of public policy, and their collaborators, Lindsey Bullinger, assistant professor of public policy at Georgia Tech, and Will Schneider, assistant professor of social work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. All are Doris Duke Fellows for the Promotion of Child Well-Being.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused sudden unemployment due to business closings, school closures, and limited access for essential services resulting in more than 26 million Americans filing unemployment claims since March 14, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Children in low-income families are especially vulnerable, the research team says, as parents may not be working and are unpaid, awaiting unemployment benefits, or may be in essential jobs such as food service or health care at a time when typical childcare arrangements are hard or even impossible to arrange.

The researchers say many families were already struggling to provide necessities, such as sufficient nutrition, housing, and basic health care. The pandemic has critically increased the severity of these needs.

“This is particularly challenging for single-parent families who are making really hard choices about working, caring for their families, and trying to stay healthy,” Feely says. “Without policy and support, this is an impossible task.”

Noting that, while these issues exist currently, there will also be long-term child neglect concerns as the pandemic continues to spread across the nation and lingers over weeks and months. The emergency measures will continue to impact lives after COVID-19 runs its course, including the needs of staff in child services agencies who may experience the same financial hardships and child care challenges as their clients.

“For many states – and possibly the nation –this pandemic is going to last a longtime, and we aren’t just going to pop out of this. Families won’t just rebound and accumulated debt won’t just disappear. Policy supports have got to exist for the long haul to support families at every stage,” Raissian says.

The researchers recommend that frontline staff in family and child services agencies provide support to help reduce the risk of child neglect, including assisting families to obtain services, maintain contact with families, and keep them updated on support programs. Connecticut’s Office of Early Childhood and Department of Children and Families, which is often a national leader in policies for children and families, is already implementing some of these measures to mitigate the negative effects on vulnerable families.

Raissian adds, “Parenting is the most essential job there is. Parenting is also relentless, with no pay and a lot of essential costs. Parents need time and money. Decision-makers may not be able to do much about the time pressures, but they can help to advance policy and private foundation support to get families flexible cash so they can meet their immediate and dire needs.”