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Pandemic Takes Toll on Children

Stressed out homebound parents vent frustrations by abusing and neglecting kids.
First of two parts.

Child abuse prevention advocates are concerned that the longer the COVID-19 pandemic continues, more endangered children will become victims of violence and neglect. With schools shut down and social services agencies laying off workers, many of the customary safeguards in spotting signs of abuse have disappeared.

Statistically, nationwide reported child abuse has plummeted. But anecdotally, watchdogs are certain incidents are mounting. The quarantine, loss of employment, and financial anxiety all play a role.

“When stress and poverty increases, child abuse increases,” says Donna Washburn, 44, director of the Center for Compassion at Evangel University in Springfield, Missouri. “Both of those variables have increased in the past five months.” As director of the Center for Compassion, Washburn’s role has included partnering with community organizations in an effort to prevent or reduce instances of child abuse.

Myriad factors are involved as to why an adult hits a child, but usually the problem is one that escalates. A frustrated parent may start by yelling, then move to punitive measures, and ultimately to inappropriate physical discipline. That might be manifested by pushing a child into a heavy object, slapping the child across the face, or locking the child outdoors.

“Routines become disrupted for parents not accustomed to having their child 24/7,” says Patricia E. Barrett, a counselor at Emerge Counseling Services in Akron, Ohio, for 24 years. “Many parents who have been furloughed from their jobs do not have the ability, resources, or patience to deal with children who are home because schools have shut down. Children have no outlet for their energy and parents need quiet when they work.”

Christians aren’t immune from acting on such pressures, according to Washburn, a member of the Missouri State Child Abuse and Neglect Review Board which monthly investigates cases. She says a majority of child abuse allegations involve self-described Christians, many of whom claim to be following biblical principles of childrearing. “Spare the rod, spoil the child” (Proverbs 13:24) is a favorite refrain of those facing charges.

“A child who doesn’t see parents turning to the Lord for patience and peace won’t see God as a readily available source,” says Barrett, who earned her doctorate in clinical psychology. “Or, if the family goes to church three times a week, but the parents are arguing more than ever during this time, that affects the child’s trust and faith walk.”

Fully two-thirds of abuse calls usually are connected to neglect, and Washburn believes neglect has become a bigger problem during the COVID-19 era. With child-care centers closed, more kids are left home alone unsupervised as parents go to work. Some aren’t receiving adequate nutrition because school feeding programs are unavailable. Washburn, who holds a doctorate in counseling education, is wrapping up 20 years of teaching at Evangel University, but remains an adjunct instructor. She is the new director of the Townsend Institute of Counseling at Concordia University-Irvine. She will work remotely from Missouri as director for the master’s and Ph.D. counseling programs for the California school.

According to the American Society for the Positive Care of Children, 61 percent of abuse involves neglect, 11 percent physical abuse, 7 percent sexual abuse, and 2 percent psychological maltreatment. Almost 92 percent of the victims are mistreated by one or both parents. Annually, 1,770 children die from abuse and neglect in the U.S.

Since the pandemic began, there has been a steep decline in the number of reported cases of suspected child abuse. That’s because the usual discoverers of abuse aren’t seeing children during the quarantine. Fully half of the cases normally are detected by someone from the child’s school, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

“The quarantine has caused children to be cut off from the support of teachers, guidance counselors, coaches, and friends,” says Nicole Braddock Bromley, founder of OneVOICE, a Columbus, Ohio-based organization that fights sexual abuse and trafficking.

In addition, social service agencies are on hiatus in some areas, child protective custody workers aren’t making home visits, and outlets for children to visit such as Boys & Girls Clubs or YMCA are shut down.

“This doesn’t mean child abuse isn’t happening,” says Sandra Hogue, whose husband Stephen, is an Assemblies of God U.S. missionary; both work with COMPACT Family Services. “It’s just not being reported.”

Stephen and Sandra Hogue, who have been married for 22 years, know a bit about the subject. Eight of their 10 adopted children (now ages 7 to 20) came from environments of abuse or neglect. Serving with Chaplaincy Ministries, the Hogues from their Ormond Beach, Florida, base, train foster families at church conferences.

Sandra, 45, notes that lately more severely injured children are showing up at emergency rooms with head trauma, broken bones, and burns — inflicted by parents or guardians who only seek medical attention when the damage turns severe.

“So many children are stuck at home with someone who is abusive to them,” Bromley says. “They don’t have a safe place to turn or an outside person such as a teacher to notice the signs of abuse.”

Child welfare agencies expect a change once school classes begin meeting again regularly.

“There likely will be a huge spike in the numbers of hotline reports when professionals can see and hear again what is going in children’s lives,” says Washburn, who has three children, ages 7, 15, and 19, with her husband, Bruce, a school police research officer. Down the line, instances of anxiety disorders, severe depression, and suicide attempts are expected to rise, Barrett believes.

Bromley, who works with the national sexual assault hotline, says those calls have skyrocketed during the pandemic as minors are phoning like never before, reporting their own abuse occurring at home.

“Children are calling in themselves, although they aren’t giving a lot of information,” says Barrett, 67. “They just want help.”

Besides the short-term physical pain inflicted, child abuse can leave long-term scars in a variety of ways.

“Abuse can cause emotional trauma, which can include literal damage to the brain,” Sandra Hogue says. “The effects can cause learning disabilities, developmental delays, trust issues, relationship issues, and problems with attachment and connection.”

Because a child’s brain is still forming, the fallout from pandemic remembrances will cause traumatic memories that continue for years, says Barrett, the mother of two adult sons. That includes a kid left alone at home for days on end.

“If a child remembers no one was available when they were really scared, they will feel the same way as an adult,” Barrett cautions.

Stephen Hogue, 46, says congregations can try to prevent child abuse by alleviating some of the pressures families are experiencing during the pandemic. That may involve helping to provide food or paying utility bills for strapped households.

“The Church needs to emerge out of this pandemic looking more like a family than a corporation,” Hogue says. “When we are family, we are able to develop closer relationships, to find out things we never would have known just sitting next to someone in a pew on Sunday morning.”

Washburn agrees that this is a time when churches can provide needed resources to overwhelmed parents.

“Alleviating stress and poverty goes a long way toward helping alleviate child abuse,” Washburn says.

Barrett also believes this is a prime opportunity for congregations to provide resources for strained parents. For instance, prayer hotlines can help talk an adult down from a crisis situation. She encourages youth pastors to be checking up on teens in their groups to ensure they are doing OK. In some regions, churches have opened limited summer day camps just so a child can be in an environment other than the home for a couple of hours a day.

Church program workers — Sunday School teachers, nursery helpers, youth ministry leaders, Royal Rangers directors, Girls Ministries advisers — are mandated child abuse reporters.

“Every church should have a detailed and formal reporting policy,” Washburn says.

“A Sunday School teacher can be a voice for an abused child who has no other voice,” says Bromley, 40.

Signs of abuse often are visible, such as a facial bruise. But a child expressing feelings of hunger may be a plea for help, Sandra Hogue says.

“We are not allowed to overlook it or write it off,” she says. “It’s our mandate to call it in.”

A worker doesn’t need to ask a child any questions or seek a second opinion if abuse or neglect is suspected, Hogue explains.

“It’s up to the child welfare agency to do the investigation,” she says. All states have social services hotlines, but there is an around-the-clock national hotline: 1-800-4-A-CHILD.

While sexual abuse victims may not exhibit physical signs, the mistreatment becomes apparent in conversations, Bromley says.

Even as some churches remain shuttered, they still are offering drive-through grocery giveaways. Stephen Hogue urges adherents to be attentive to the family in the vehicle. Does the driver look impaired? Are there bruises visible on the child riding in the back seat?

Silence has persisted for too long, Bromley maintains, with many people preferring to ignore and cover up abuse.

“For a long time, Christians have wanted to pretend that abuse is not happening in the Church,” Bromley says. “But the Church can be a beacon if we’re willing to address the issue. Silence and secrecy only perpetuate abuse.”

Photo: The Hogue family is comprised of (front row from left) Sandra, Sarai, Solomon, Siloam, Samuel, (back row from left) Stephen, Stephen, Sophia, Simon, Selah, Seth, and Silas.

Next: How Nicole Braddock Bromley overcame a childhood of abuse.

John W. Kennedy

John W. Kennedy served as news editor of AG News from its inception in 2014 until retiring in 2023. He previously spent 15 years as news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel and seven years as news editor at Christianity Today.