Many believe that one positive of the current health crisis is that children are not particularly vulnerable to the virus, but the youngest among us may bear the greatest trauma.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has stated that one of the most vulnerable demographics during the COVID-19 pandemic is those aged 65 and older. But with mandatory quarantines in place and over 10,000 schools across the country closing their doors, children are at an increased risk of negligence and abuse.
The reaction to COVID-19 in the United States has centered on flattening the curve by restricting gatherings and movement. While the provisions are a necessary step in reducing the amount of cases health care facilities take in at a given time, the most vulnerable children in our society are susceptible to more than just this virus. As restrictions escalate, resources and social outlets become increasingly scarce, and support systems operate remotely, there is a heightened risk of violence, exploitation, and abuse. This pandemic may likely become a funnel for increased child welfare cases, where leaving kids at home during work shifts or in toxic environments becomes a basis for a surge in neglect and abuse cases. UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Ford opines, “[w]e know from previous health emergencies that children are at heightened risk of exploitation and abuse when schools are closed, jobs are lost and movement is restricted. And for the most vulnerable children, we know that the longer they stay away from school, the less likely they are to return.”
Past health crises have proven that children are at an increased risk of neglect and abuse when their access to steady meals and social outlets are restricted.
A proliferation in neglect and abuse cases is not unique to this current health crisis. During the Ebola outbreak in West Africa from 2014 to 2016, countries that closed schools to contain the virus saw spikes in child labor, neglect, and sexual abuse. While the resources of most communities in the United States are more stable and less reliant on agricultural livelihood than that of say, Sierra Leone, the forced isolation and lack of a consistent and reliable food source such as school lunches could very easily have the same horrific effect over the long term.
While many adults are still employed, at least remotely, and are continuing their typical routines, school is the primary source of structure and socialization for kids. Children have active social lives, most often experienced entirely through school and extracurricular activities. Moreover, schools are one of, if not the primary providers for a number of essential services. As New York City debated recently, schools are the only thing standing between some children and food insecurity. Additionally, schools might be the only places some kids receive even the most cursory dental, physical, and mental health care, as well as physical activity.
COVID-19 has drastically impacted access to the court system, making it difficult to address the growing concern of child welfare issues.
On March 13, 2020, North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Beasley announced by official order that, with limited exceptions, all pending superior and district court proceedings would be rescheduled 30 days out, with no new hearings to be scheduled during that time period. On April 2, 2020, Justice Beasley extended that emergency directive through the end of May. These orders permitted remote or in-person proceedings that are “necessary to preserve the right to due process of law. . . [or are] for the purpose of obtaining emergency relief. . . or [when] the chief district court judge determines that the proceeding can be conducted under conditions that protect the health and safety of all participants.” The exception for emergency hearings included domestic violence protection orders, temporary restraining orders, and juvenile non-secure custody orders. However, since in-person hearings have resumed as of June 1, courts have been inundated with postponed cases.
Under the current official order, judges maintain the right to hold hearings via remote platforms. While the issue of juvenile abuse cases not being heard has been somewhat resolved by the soft reopening of courts, children are still at risk because of the backlog of cases that were postponed in March. In fact, the Wake County District Attorney’s Office warned that when the courts shut down in March in response to the pandemic, a backlog in scheduling would be created.
In an area of the law where time is of the essence, every day in a provisional legal environment is critical. Further, while the Department of Social Services maintains the ability to hold hearings to adjudicate claims of child abuse, neglect, and dependency, COVID-19 makes the typical reporting process less effective. With one of the primary avenues of identifying at-risk children eroded by confinement to homes, children are confronted with a double edge sword. Not only are they at a greater risk of neglect and abuse when confined to their homes without adequate support or resources, but the likelihood of detection by third parties is significantly decreased.
So what can be done to curb the trend toward an increase in child abuse and neglect?
An estimated 350 million children worldwide are now missing out on what may be their only nutritious meal of the day: a school lunch. However, the numbers are not entirely grim. The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction received a federal waiver that permits local school districts and approved community agencies to continue to provide meals to students during this health crisis. While school districts are under no legal obligation to do so, those that choose to provide meals to students will be reimbursed for meals provided to students during closures due to COVID-19. No Kid Hungry North Carolina is also maintaining a statewide list of all meal distribution sites in each county with specific information regarding access to each.
Meanwhile, the federal government will continue to allow all public-school students, including those in North Carolina, to access free school lunches even if they do not normally qualify for the benefit. Under normal circumstances, public schools are restricted from serving free meals to lower-income students. However, that restriction has been lifted during the ongoing pandemic. This waiver was set to expire August 31, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture extended the free meal flexibility until federal funding runs out, which currently could be as late as December 31.
Even private companies are joining the effort to provide children with resources to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. As of their September 21, 2020 press release, Spectrum is continuing to offer free internet service for 60 days to households with students in kindergarten through 12th grade and/or college students who do not already have internet access. Many local churches and nonprofits are also redirecting their efforts toward helping families in need as the pandemic continues to worsen.
In order to avoid a pandemic of an entirely new sort, it is absolutely critical that the country does not ignore the widespread effects of the virus, outside of the immediate health risk it poses. While children’s medical health may not be as threatened by COVID-19 as others, their safety and well-being are still very much in danger. As the United States continues to venture further into uncharted territory, the need to adapt to meet the needs of one of society’s most vulnerable populations will only increase.