New Brunswick

Reports of suspected child abuse have fallen 40 per cent during COVID-19 outbreak

New Brunswick's minister of social development says she's worried there are children who are suffering in the province but aren't getting help because their cases are not being reported.

New Brunswick minister of social development says she's worried children are suffering but not getting help

The number of calls to New Brunswick's Child Protection Services in March fell by 40 per cent compared to March 2019. (HumsterAnna/Shutterstock)

New Brunswick's minister of social development says she's worried there are children who are suffering from abuse in the province but aren't getting help because their cases are not being reported.

So much has been cancelled by COVID-19, Dorothy Shephard fears children in distress are not being seen by coaches, teachers, friends and neighbours.

"We rely heavily on the community for referrals," she said while working from home Tuesday morning.

Last month, the Child Protection Services intake desk got 815 calls.

In March 2019, the number was 1370.

It's normal to see some decline in referrals in summer, after school gets out — but not by as much as 40 per cent..

"It's very real, we've lost some touchpoints," said Shephard.

Dorothy Shepherd, New Brunswick's minister of social development, is concerned about the recent drop in reports of possible child abuse and neglect. She believes the isolation imposed by the state of emergency may also be putting some children at risk. (Rachel Cave/CBC)

"You don't have churches meeting. We don't have school sports programs ongoing or extracurricular sports.

"Community food programs are very transient. People will come and pick up food and take it home as opposed to being in the community where they're talking."

Shephard says that's why it's critical that during this pandemic, those who suspect they know children at risk take the time to call it in.

"Give us those calls. It doesn't hurt to make an inquiry if their gut is telling them something is not right," she said.

Social workers will visit homes, if needed

"We will follow up on every single referral."

That would include reports of suspected physical, emotional or sexual abuse, or exposure to violence or sexual activity.

Neglect includes the failure to provide basic needs, such as food, clothing, shelter, or appropriate care for health, teeth or hygiene.  

The minister says social workers will go into homes if it's warranted.

Any front line workers in Child Protection are deemed essential, said the department.

The minister said their work should be acknowledged and she said they're trying to innovate, too.

Technology helps

Because they all now have cell phones, she said they are using them to maintain contact with families that they know.

"So when they FaceTime, they're bringing the children into the picture. They're asking families to show them around their home, to look into the bathroom or the refrigerator or inside the cupboards."

"They're looking at maintaining that close contact wherever they can. But when the situations are warranted they are continuing to do in-person checks," said Shephard.

While Shephard worries about what her department may be missing, so do others who work with children.  

Dr. Sarah Gander, who spoke to the CBC about the impact of COVID-19 on children, said they may not be suffering from acute illness now, but there could be a larger impact down the road.

She said children are not getting the care, services and support that they need and the longer it goes on, the greater the fallout.  

"We have people at home where home may not be a safe place," said the Saint John pediatrician.

Saint John pediatrician Dr. Sarah Gander worries about the long-term effects the COVID-19 state of emergency will have on at-risk children. (Brian Chisholm/CBC)

"There are kids who were reunited with their families under the principle that there would be services there, that simply aren't."

Children are also missing out on therapy — physiotherapy, speech therapy, autism support, and behavioural programs aimed at preparing young children for school.  

"A lot of our allied health services are trying to be creative using virtual and phone conversations. But I'm a physician, you want to touch people, see people, see how they move."

High-needs children at risk

The cancellation of school is also cause for concern, even as the districts try to provide some at-home learning.  

"It's one thing to send a package home to a family who is willing and able to operationalize that," she said.

"It's another thing for a very high-needs kid."

Gander said parents of children with behavioural challenges or learning disabilities may be struggling at home and they're going to need help.

"When we thought this might just be a couple of weeks, the definition of essential service really came to my mind as being the life and limb services," she said.

"But now that this is clearly going to go on for some time, I do have a lot of concern with the ability to access [those things that] I would argue are very essential as well."


Rachel Cave is a CBC reporter based in Saint John, New Brunswick.


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