British Columbia

Child abuse likely under-reported since start of pandemic, doctor warns

Reports have dropped by more than 20 per cent compared to previous years, but Kids Help Line calls have swelled.

Reports have dropped by more than 20 per cent compared to previous years, but help line calls have swelled

Significantly fewer reports of child abuse in B.C. suggest instances have gone unreported due to isolation and quarantine, says Dr. Nita Jain from B.C.'s Children's Hospital. (Shutterstock)

A B.C. doctor is sounding the alarm over an uncharacteristic drop in the number of child abuse reports to the province's Ministry of Children and Family Development since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic — which could mean more than 1,000 cases have gone unreported.

Reports of child abuse from late March to early May are down 23 per cent, compared to the the same time last year, and down and 29 per cent from 2018, according to Dr. Nita Jain from B.C.'s Children's Hospital (BCCH).

That amounts to up to 2,000 fewer reports of child abuse than usual over the six-week period. CBC News confirmed the numbers with the MCFD.

As many families self-isolate due to physical distancing measures, Jain fears instances of child abuse are going unnoticed.

"With physical distancing measures, what happens is we all end up in our homes and children are not as visible as they typically are when they are out and about within the school system, and within the daycare system," said Jain, who is the medical director of the hospital's child protection service unit.

"It leaves those of us who work in this area concerned that those children who would be in the public eye are not visible, and we worry what might be happening behind closed doors," she said.

A lack of reporting means children miss out on essential mental and physical health programs and support services.

"The consequences can be tragic. We see children that can die from neglect, from physical abuse ... this is a really unfortunate problem that exists in society."

In an emailed statement, the MCFD said child abuse reports typically drop during the province's spring break in March, but noted this year the numbers dipped well below what was expected and continued into April.

"It's still early days and we are working hard to track and analyze the data. Our primary responsibility is to ensure the safety and well-being of the children and youth in our care, their caregivers and of families receiving services," said a spokesperson.

Doctors at B.C. Children’s Hospital are concerned about the mental and physical health of children who are slipping through the cracks, (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Help phone calls swell

For every 1,000 children in B.C., about 21 experience child abuse that is subsequently reported to authorities, although many more cases likely go unreported, according to a Child Health B.C. report.

"There is a baseline background rate of child abuse that is going on all the time," Jain said. "The number of children that are actually reported to the ministry for concerns about suspected childhood abuse and neglect are just really a tip of the iceberg."

The Kids Help Phone is among supports available for children through the pandemic.

Service volumes are up by 112 per cent, while conversations specifically related to the pandemic have increased by 400 per cent since March 12.

British Columbians are urged to dial 1-800-663-9122 to report any instance of child abuse to the Ministry of Children and Family Development. If the child or youth is in immediate danger, you should call local police.