North

Fewer people have been reporting child abuse in the N.W.T. That might not be a good thing.

Concern that social isolation might stop people from reporting child abuse was part of what drove the government to assemble a working group in 2020. The latest data from that group shows reports of suspected child maltreatment or neglect plunged dramatically in January and February 2022.

Government needs 'more time and more data' to draw conclusions from latest report

A lineup outside a Yellowknife liquor store on April 9, 2020. Alcohol sales have generally been up since the pandemic began, but could be returning to pre-pandemic levels now, according to a new report from the N.W.T. government. (Walter Strong/CBC)

As the Omicron wave of COVID-19 descended on the N.W.T. in January, schools closed and classes moved online — and the number of people reporting child abuse plummeted.

It still isn't clear what the total social impacts of COVID-19 restrictions were in the N.W.T., but fears that less school could mean fewer people reporting suspicions of child abuse appear to have borne out in recent data collected by the N.W.T. government.

Such reports dropped between October and March compared to previous years, and plunged dramatically in January and February 2022.

That data is captured in the latest of a series of government reports aiming to track the social impacts of pandemic restrictions. The data snapshots various metrics, from child maltreatment reports to alcohol sales and access to mental health services, in an effort to help the government figure out where to allocate resources and what programs to plan for.

The report, released Monday, shows the most complete picture to date, tracking data from January 2019 through to April 2022.

Concern that social isolation might inhibit people from reporting child maltreatment or neglect was part of what drove the government to assemble a working group in May 2020. That group is the one issuing these data reports.

Since the reports first began in December 2020, they have warned that the data should not be taken at face value: fewer reports of child abuse doesn't mean fewer children are being abused. It just means the abuse is less visible.

"Since child maltreatment reports may be initiated by school attendance, lack of school attendance may result in fewer child maltreatment reports," noted the first report — a warning repeated in all reports so far.

"A reduction in child maltreatment reports, then, may represent a lack of participation in school as opposed to less child maltreatment in N.W.T."

The latest report notes the working group will be watching with interest to see if people start making reports to Child and Family Services about youth and children who aren't vaccinated.

What's the word on mental health and addictions?

A large portion of the report is dedicated to data surrounding mental health, alcohol use and addictions.

The number of people visiting their health centres because of anxiety and depression began climbing almost as soon as the pandemic began, but have been generally lower since June 2021 compared to data from earlier that year and from 2020.

Hospitalizations for mental health conditions rose by 35 per cent in 2020-21, compared to the average between 2015-16 and 2019-20.

Alcohol-related hospitalizations spiked by 73 per cent in that time period, and hospitalizations from other substances nearly doubled.

A chart shows mental health hospitalizations in the N.W.T. by the type of condition. (June 2022 Social Indicators report/Government of the Northwest Territories)

Meanwhile, concerns about undiagnosed mental illness began shooting up in May 2021 and haven't subsided.

Calls to the N.W.T. Helpline have also been much higher than usual so far in 2022.

Alcohol sales have generally been up since April 2020 but could be returning to pre-pandemic levels now, "which could be due to more people travelling and purchasing alcohol outside of the territory, or could reflect decreased consumption," the report notes.

What about family violence?

The number of people accessing family violence shelters has dropped precipitously over the past two years. Between April 2021 and March 2022, 158 people accessed shelters — lower even than the year before, and half of the 315 who accessed shelters in 2019-20.

That drop could be due to many factors, the report states.

It could be because there was reduced capacity at shelters, or because it could be harder for people to leave their homes to access shelter services. It could also be because people have been more isolated, meaning signs of abuse could be less visible.

The amount of emergency protection order applications have been increasing throughout the pandemic.

From April 2018 to March 2019, 77 orders were facilitated by the Alison McAteer House Shelter in Yellowknife; that dropped to 61 for the same period in 2019-20.

But in 2020-21, the numbers shot up to 106; and in 2021-22, they remained high at 107.

What does this all mean?

It's hard to say what conclusions can be drawn from this data, according to the report, because it captures a relatively short time period.

"More time and more data are needed to draw any definitive conclusions and to inform longer term planning and action," the report states.

The government plans to continue compiling these reports as time goes on.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

April Hudson

Reporter

April Hudson is a digital journalist with CBC News in Yellowknife. After a career in print journalism in the N.W.T. and Alberta, she joined CBC North in 2021. You can reach her at april.hudson@cbc.ca.

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