Saturday, March 21, 2020 (Updated March 26, 2020)
As Boulder County residents hunker down to avoid the virus spreading silently through their community, something else is likely to propagate in homes across the area: Violence.
Providers and officials are anticipating an increase in domestic violence and child abuse amid the stressful situation created by social isolation orders and widespread job loss. SPAN, a Boulder nonprofit providing resources for survivors, estimates its weekly expenses will go up by $10,000 per week.
But there are things all of us can do to help keep kids (and adults) safe, according to Lori Poland, co-founder of Colorado-based National Foundation to End Child Abuse and Neglect. EndCAN’s other founder is Dr. Richard Krugman, a longtime dean of the University of Colorado School of Medicine.
The organization’s aim is in its name, a mission it advances through funding research on child abuse and its long-term impacts, promoting prevention programming, advocating for increased funding and awareness and educating the public about child abuse.
A big part of that last piece is correcting misperceptions that abuse looks a particular way. It’s a spectrum, Poland said: Even in homes where hitting doesn’t happen, children can be damaged by parenting that is “aggressive” or “fear-based.”
“Psychological abuse and neglect are just as impactful and lifelong,” she said. “Not all abuse is bruises.”
Millions of children suffer abuse and neglect each year, according to the American Society for the Positive Care of Children. In 2017, more than 1,700 kids died from abuse or neglect in the U.S. — nearly five per day.
Moreover, any home can become abusive during times of extreme stress. Parenting is challenging enough without the additional threat of pandemic and the very real loss of income many homes are facing. Every parent needs to be aware of how they are managing their emotions — and the impact it can have on impressionable children.
“I don’t care how good of a parent you are,” Poland said, “this is scary for everybody.
“As parents, we’re first humans.”
For parents: Tell the truth and apologize
It’s important for parents to acknowledge that daily life has changed. Humans are creatures of habit; kids more so. Routines have been interrupted by school closures and work-from-home orders.
Any deviation from normal “can create a lot of chaos” for children, Poland said. “Naming that is really validating.”
When adults do get overwhelmed and express it in ways that may be scary for kids, Poland said, they should apologize. That helps teach children what behavior is OK and what isn’t.
Poland shared an example from her own life. Just recently, while dealing with a sick father, a daughter facing surgery and the COVID outbreak, the divorced, business-owning mother of three spilled some soup in front of her young son.
“I made this growling sound,” Poland recounted. “He looked at me with wide eyes and I said, ‘Buddy, I’m sorry. I’m really stressed.'”
His response validated her frustration. “He said, ‘It’s OK. It’s really hard right now.'”
Such swift forgiveness is typical of children, Poland said, who are “not quite as tainted by the world as adults are.” Plus, it has the added benefit of modeling good behavior: being accountable for ones words and actions.
“If parents just took ownership of misfortunes and messups, our kids would be a lot more forgiving,” she said, and in turn, “we are less likely to be abusive in the future.”
Everybody needs a break — and you can help with that
Equally important is to know your limits. Time away from children can be essential in keeping your cool, Poland said.
That’s where neighbors can come in. If there are families in your neighborhood, offer to take the kids for even a quick walk — assuming there’s somewhere safe to do so and that you stay the recommended six feet away.
“Ultimately, we don’t need much” to restore calm, Poland said. A short break can be “like a massage” — it doesn’t alter the stressful environment at home, but it does offer some relief, a timeout so that stress can be handled better.
Poland has been using walks as a way to connect with, rather than get away, from her three children.
“If we just take a quick minute to get on our child’s level and connect with them, they’re a lot more inclined to have that sense of ease,” she said. “It’s quality over quantity.”
‘Do what we can’
Bystanders can do this, too, Poland said. Whenever you see kids out and about in public — whether or not their parents look stressed — use simple language to acknowledge the world around us.
“I’ve been in grocery store about seven times in the last week,” Poland said. “Every time I see a child, if I have an opportunity to speak to them, I just validate what’s going on (by) being a light and optimistic voice for them without ignoring what’s present. ‘Wow, things are pretty wild right now, aren’t they?’
Ultimately, Poland said, it’s about doing “what we can.” Keeping an eye on the children in our orbit is critical always, but especially now.
And, if people see behaviors that are concerning, don’t be afraid to call authorities and report abuse, Poland said. Protecting children is more important than minding your own business or not causing a fuss: “Always err on the side of our instincts and make that call.”
It’s important to remember that abuse isn’t as black-and-white as people might think. Abuse isn’t only perpetrated by bad people, or bad parents: Anyone can succumb to stress.
Likewise, anyone can learn better parenting. There’s a quote that is commonly referenced in advocate circles, Poland said, by pediatrician C. Henry Kempe, who first defined child abuse and neglect: “Abusive parents love their children very much, just not very well. It’s our job to teach them how.”
Poland added her own words of wisdom: “Abuse happens in isolation, always,” she said. “It’s our job as humans to send a ray of hope.”
Colorado Child Abuse & Neglect Hotline – 1-844-CO-4-KIDS (1-844-264-5437)
The number serves as a direct, immediate and efficient route to all Colorado’s 64 counties and two tribal nations, which are responsible for accepting and responding to child abuse and neglect concerns. Anyone concerned for the welfare of a child should immediately report their concerns without hesitation to 1-844-CO-4-KIDS (1-844-264-5437). All callers are able to speak with a call-taker 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. All calls can be kept anonymous. If a child is in immediate danger, dial 911.
-Dianna Robinson, MA Communications
Public Awareness Communications Specialist
www.co4kids.org – learn more about the signs that may be associated with child abuse, child neglect, child sex trafficking and discover ways to get involved helping children and young people in their community, like becoming a foster parent or mentor to a child in need
Find tips for “positive parenting” children of all ages at endcan.org/resources-and-information/
Author’s note: This article has been updated with additional resources.
— Shay Castle, firstname.lastname@example.org, @shayshinecastle
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