Edmonton sees fewer reports of child abuse during the COVID-19 pandemic

The prevalence of child abuse usually increases during times of crisis, yet child advocates have noticed a marked decrease in reported cases since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Child abuse typically increases during times of crisis but reporting is down, advocates say

Edmonton's Zebra Child Protection Centre saw a 31-per-cent decrease in reported child abuse cases between mid-March and mid-April 2020. (Shutterstock )

The prevalence of child abuse usually increases during times of crisis, yet child advocates have noticed a marked decrease in reported cases since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Edmonton's Zebra Child Protection Centre, which supports victims of abuse as their cases work through the legal system, has seen a 31-per-cent decline in its caseload from mid-March to mid-April. 

"That's a bit concerning because generally we expect that to be going up," said Sgt. Manuel Illner, who works with the Zebra Centre through the Edmonton police Child Protection Unit.

Reporting typically declines during the summer, when children no longer attend school and have less contact with trusted adults, Illner said.

"We're actually seeing that decline a little bit earlier because we don't believe that kids have the resources to report child abuse."

Around 87 per cent of children who are abused know the perpetrator, Illner said. 

The decline in reporting is especially worrisome because child abuse is known to increase during times of economic downturn, such as the one caused by the pandemic, said Zebra Centre CEO Cheryl Diebel. 

"When there's isolation, they don't have the supports they would normally have," Diebel said. 

"You see a higher incidence of child abuse, of domestic violence and online exploitation. All of those things tend to increase during times like this."

The Zebra Centre supported 2,362 children and youth in 2019, a 13-per-cent increase from the year before. (Josee St-Onge/CBC)

Adults who suspect a child is being abused have a legal obligation to report it, Illner said. 

"If you suspect child abuse, you are required to ethically, morally and legally report it."

Signs of abuse include sudden changes in behaviour or performance, a drastic change of appearance, and sexual knowledge or behaviour beyond their stage of development, according to Child Advocacy Centres of Alberta. 

Reports of suspected child abuse can be made anonymously through Alberta's Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-387-5437 or by calling local police or RCMP.

Access to teachers, trusted adults

Periods when kids are out of school historically correlate with spikes in child abuse, said Sara Austin, founder of the advocacy group Children First Canada. 

Teachers and other school staff are often the ones who detect injuries or notice that a child's behaviour has changed, Austin said. 

"They would be the ones who would know what our kids are like even in the best of times, and be the ones to observe changes in their behaviour if something is going wrong."

Children First Canada is asking governments to continue funding and facilitating virtual meetings and interactions between teachers and students. 

"Teachers should be not only supporting the education of our children, but also being able to keep lines of communication open," said Austin. 

Supporting young parents

Physical distancing rules have put pressure on young, vulnerable parents, said psychologist Roger Ogden.

"They're with their children 24/7," said Ogden, who works for iHuman Youth Society, an organization that offers support through arts programming to at-risk young people in Edmonton.

He's noticed an increase in young people reaching out for help, which he accommodates through virtual sessions. 

"They're dealing with instability in housing," Ogden said. "Some are dealing with issues of substance abuse or addiction, financial insecurity and no relief from child care.

"We know that stress is a contributing factor to child abuse and to domestic violence."

It's more important than ever to ensure that young parents have the basic resources they need, said Ogden. 

"The effort now is focused on providing strategies for reducing those stress factors."

Young people who need help can reach the Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868 or by texting 686868.


Josee St-Onge


Josee St-Onge is a journalist with CBC Edmonton. She has also reported in French for Radio-Canada in Alberta and Saskatchewan.