A disturbing trend has led to a plea from doctors across the country as more babies and children are being treated with serious trauma, fractures and in some cases, malnutrition.
“Reports of child abuse have decreased significantly during the pandemic and we don’t think that’s because there are less concerns, we think it’s because there are less concerns being identified,” said Dr. Michelle Ward, a paediatrician and head of the division for Child and Youth Protection at Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO)
Ward and her colleagues began looking into potential maltreatment back in the fall when they began to notice more infants coming in with fractures, bleeding around the brain and broken bones. Since September 2020, CHEO has seen and treated more than twice as many infants under one year old for maltreatment concerns, specifically fractures and head trauma.
“Serious injuries can happen to a child within a matter of a few seconds,” Ward said. “Particularly injuries to the brain, to the eyes that can happen when force is used with a child even in those moments can have lifelong consequences so they don’t grow up to be the person they otherwise would have been.”
It is believed the injuries are connected to high levels of stress connected to the on-going pandemic, Ward said.
Friday CHEO, Ottawa Public Health and the Children’s Aid Society of Ottawa issued an online public service announcement urging parents and other caregivers to reach out for help when in need.
“We want people to reach out if they need help and not to feel ashamed or stigmatized if they need that help,” Ward said.
Similar situations have been reported in other parts of Canada, including at B.C.’s Children’s Hospital (BCCH), where there was concern during the first wave that maltreatment and child abuse were actually going under-reported.
“When children aren’t coming to attention and they aren’t being reported what they are doing is they’re struggling behind closed doors,” Nita Jain said, medical director of the hospital’s child protection service unit at BCCH.
Now she’s seeing a spike, but not in the ways doctors expected, they’re now seeing several cases of nutritional neglect and starvation.
“These are I believe families that were just so stretched and so stressed that we didn’t recognize as a society how much they were struggling and just that very basic necessity,” Jain said.
“We’re talking about children that were in the same clothing, diapers for who knows how long and so that’s where I just feel like it’s moved into a realm that we previously were not appreciating, we just weren’t seeing kids that were struggling like that.”
Studies show at baseline, maltreatment is a common experience among Canadian children, with up to 33% of Canadians reporting some experience of maltreatment before age 15 years and It is widely recognized that these numbers are likely underestimated.
Doctors and advocates are also highlighting that this is an especially tough time for new parents – who are isolated from family and friends.
“I think beyond the family, beyond the community, we need our policy makers to make investments in the care of our children,” said Sara Austin, CEO of Children First Canada ,an advocacy group dedicated to serving Canadian children.
“We have largely failed children and their parents during this pandemic because supports have not been in place and we need greater guidance particularly from our Public Health officials about how parents can get support during these really difficult times when they feel so isolated,” Austin said.
Those who work in child welfare and advocacy said they want parents to come forward if they’re struggling and to see the stigma surrounding asking for help erased.