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Creative crafts, alphabetized pantries, workout challenges. And a reminder that Isaac Newton invented calculus during a quarantine.

Social media these days is filled with inspiration on making the most of staying home.

But here’s the thing–working, parenting and homeschooling are hard. Throw in the anxiety of a pandemic, the difficulty of finding resources, new money worries, and the shifting of safety nets. Now, you’ve got the perfect storm for abuse.

Educators, school social workers, and nurses are often the first to spot signs of abuse. They are mandated reporters and usually attuned to the nuances of abuse. That means that they can often sense things aren’t right before the situation deteriorates and that they must report any suspicions, so they can contact child protective services in time to support a family with resources and education.

“We’re in Child Abuse Prevention Month, and yet the pandemic makes it so much harder to mitigate/address many of the factors that can contribute to child abuse,” said Janet Watkins, director of Rappahannock Court Appointed Special Advocates. “For example, I worry about children in homes with domestic violence since we’re all essentially on orders to remain at home. I worry about children in homes where parents are under additional financial stress because of lost jobs. I worry about kids whose parents have mental health or substance abuse problems that are harder to address now because access to in-lerson therapy is limited.”

Child abuse prevention is complex in the best of circumstances. In the midst of social distancing, massive layoffs, and national anxiety, it becomes even more challenging. But there are steps we can take as a community to protect children.

A graphic on the importance of child abuse prevention

Speaking Up

First–as always–if you see something, say something. We hear this all the time, right? But it’s easier said than done. We hesitate to get involved. We sense something is wrong but don’t know the line between different parenting styles and abuse or neglect. Here’s the thing: It’s not our job to decide. There are trained social workers who do this all the time and who receive special training. It’s better to err on the side of caution.

We often have this idea in our head that if we call social services, someone shows up at the family’s doorstep and takes their children away.

“It’s a myth that they do that quickly all the time,” Watkins said. “The goal is to keep families together.”

Departments of social services have a tool belt filled with mechanisms for helping children, including parenting education and linking to resources.

Offering Support

Second, support parents.

“A dysregulated adult cannot help a dysregulated child and that combination can lend itself to out of control situations,” said Lisa Dolan, lead social worker for Spotsylvania County Public Schools.

This can be especially challenging during the coronavirus outbreak. But there are things we can do to help families, support parents, and keep children safe.

  • Food Assistance. If you can, help with local efforts to feed local families. Even if you can’t, make sure you share details on local resources with families who may need them. This page includes links to local school food distribution schedules, and details on finding financial assistance and food.
  • Financial Assistance. Rappahannock United Way has these resources available. Help if you can and/or spread the word.
  • Check in on parents. If you know parents who may be struggling under these circumstances (and, really, which parents aren’t?), remember to check in with them. We can’t visit in person, but we can text, Skype, keep up via social media, email, etc. Ask them what’s going on and offer non-judgmental support.
  • Offer a break. In-person babysitting is out, but what about a video chat? Record a video of a favorite children’s story or of you teaching a skill to a child. It could provide a healthy distraction for a child and a break for their parent.
  • Spread the word about mental health support. We are offering teletherapy for mental health and substance use disorder services. We take most insurance plans and offer a sliding scale fee. Many mental health providers are offering similar services. Encourage individuals to connect with their mental health providers to find alternate methods of therapy while social distancing–and encourage people to seek out new services if they find themselves unable to cope.
  • Also share mental health tips and resources. We have a page of resources that can help anyone struggling with anxiety or mental illness during this time.
  • Provide extra support and caring for families taking care of individuals with developmental disability
  • Be creative–think of ways to help families even while social distancing. Create a neighborhood game that children can play from their own home. Perhaps a bear hunt or scavenger hunt or an effort to create positive messages with sidewalk chalk.

Practice Self Care

You know the cliche about fitting your own oxygen mask on a plane before helping anyone else fit theirs? Well, it’s a cliche because it fits so many situations. Including this one. It’s important to make sure you’ve taken care of your own emotional well-being and have developed ways to cope with the stress and anxiety of these times.

If you can find inner calm, you can help others keep their calm. If you’re feeling anxious and frenzied, it will be difficult to help.

  • Practice radical self kindness. This is not a time to beat yourself up. It’s totally normal to feel anxiety, grief, worry, etc. during these times. Dealing with those are exhausting. Do not add extra expectations. If you don’t use this time to organize your closets, create colorful mosaics on your driveway, or learn new hobbies, it’s OK.
  • Keep a routine. It’s easy to feel out of control when the world is so different. A basic routine will ground you.
  • Stay informed. But use only reliable sources of information. And make sure to have downtime, when you’re not checking the latest numbers of coronavirus cases or deaths.
  • Get enough sleep. Eat healthy foods. Find time to move. Yup, the usual advice still stands. You don’t need to use this time to train for a marathon, build a home gym, or start a new diet. But taking care of your body will help your mind and mood.
  • Meditate. Take deep breaths. Journal. Take a warm bath. Whatever your preferred way to relax–this is the time to use your favorite calming tools.

We’re all struggling to adapt to a new normal. And asking everyone to prevent child abuse may seem like another difficult task. But protecting children is such important work, and we all have a role to play.

Additional Resources

I asked some of my favorite local experts on preventing child abuse and supporting families for some resources. They generously shared these resources:

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