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CDC: ER visits for child abuse drop during pandemic

CDC: ER visits for child abuse drop during pandemic
Emergency room visits related to child abuse and neglect have declined since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the CDC. Photo by Ulrike Mai/Pixabay

Dec. 10 (UPI) -- Hospital emergency room visits related to child abuse and neglect declined by more than half nationally during the first nine months of 2020, compared with the same period in 2019, according to a report released Thursday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This happened despite the risk for child abuse rising, perhaps by as much as five times, since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

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CDC researchers said this expected increase in abuse was due to "heightened levels of stress from school closures, increased parental childcare and schooling responsibilities and significant job and income losses," among other factors.

The findings mirror the overall 70% drop in ER visits among children 14 and younger during the pandemic, as many people across the United States avoided healthcare facilities over fears of virus transmission.

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"These trends are not surprising given the lack of supports and resources experienced by families during the pandemic," Samantha M. Brown, who has researched child abuse during the pandemic, told UPI.

"Since children were not regularly interacting with school or other health care professionals during the stay-at-home restrictions, opportunities to detect early warning signs of maltreatment may have been missed," said Brown, an assistant professor of social work at Colorado State University who was not part of the CDC analysis.

Research has suggested that incidents of domestic violence have increased since the the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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However, since the start of 2020, the number of official reports of abuse and neglect made to child protection agencies has fallen by as much as 70%, according to the CDC.

"The pandemic has ... disrupted the process of official reporting of suspected child abuse and neglect due to decreased in-person contact between children and mandated reporters, such as teachers," agency researchers wrote in a press release.

The findings on ER visits are based on reporting from more than 3,300 hospitals nationally, the CDC said.

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Researchers compared trends at these facilities for 2020, through early September, to those for the same period in 2019.

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This year, ER visits related to child abuse and neglect peaked nationally in early March, just before the Trump administration declared a national state of emergency because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the CDC data showed.

They only began to approach 2019 levels over the summer, when lockdown restrictions meant to reduce spread of the virus -- including business closures and bans on large gatherings -- began to be relaxed in many parts of the country, the agency found.

Still, although there were fewer ER visits overall, the proportion of visits attributed to child abuse and neglect actually increased -- by about 60% -- in 2020, compared with 2019, the CDC said.

This indicates that healthcare-seeking patterns shifted during the pandemic, with ER visits for other causes declining more than those for child abuse and neglect, according to the agency.

"Evidence from past public health threats and economic recessions show harmful effects on the lives of children and families due in part to school closures, increased social isolation and unemployment," Brown told UPI.

"Disruption to caregivers' daily schedules, social systems, and limited reprieve from care-taking responsibilities place families at heightened risk of stress," she said.

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