Meant to protect, stay-at-home exposes some to hidden danger

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Developers of the ACERT Project, from left to right: Lara Quiroga director of strategic initiatives for children at Amoskeag Health; Jessica Cantin, CEO of YWCA NH; Nicole Ledoux,  director of victim services with the Granite State Children’s Alliance; and Lt. Paul Thompson from Manchester Police Department. FILE PHOTO

MANCHESTER, NH  – “The first day I heard they were closing the schools I was afraid,” says Nicole Ledoux. “This is a very bad situation for kids at risk of in-home abuse.”

Ledoux speaks from experience. She’s a former lieutenant with Manchester Police Department and oversaw the department’s juvenile and domestic violence units. She now directs victim services with the Granite State Children’s Alliance.

Since COVID-19 began to ramp up in New Hampshire, and Governor Sununu issued the stay at home order to stem the spread of infection, the state’s Division for Children Youth and Families (DCYF) has seen a stark decline in the number of reported cases of child abuse and neglect.

Reports are down 50 percent since the March 16 emergency order closing public schools, but to advocates for children this is an ominous warning sign. 

“This has triggered a storm we know is coming. It’s going to have devastating life-long impacts on children exposed to violence, abuse and neglect in their home,” said Jessica Cantin, CEO of YWCA New Hampshire.

YWCA operates the REACH crisis service program in Manchester and is also a founding partner of Manchester’s highly acclaimed Adverse Childhood Experiences Response Team with Manchester Police Department, Amoskeag Health and other community organizations. 

The state’s Covid-19 stay-at-home order “creates the perfect storm” adds Ledoux because, “…people are stressed, and those on the edge have no support. We know that in situations like this when children are isolated at home, unhealthy interpersonal family issues increase — not decrease.” 

The warning system is broken

While all adults in New Hampshire are required by law to report suspected instances of abuse or neglect to the Division of Children, Youth and Families, the leading source of these reports is teachers. Next is by law enforcement officials who have been alerted by teachers. And the third leading source of reports to DCYF is by coaches of children’s sports teams. 

With social distancing and the stay-at-home order in place, and school, camp and sports programs on hold for the indefinite future, the warning system protecting children who live in adverse family situations is not fully operating.

“In Manchester, we average 75 to 80 referrals to DCYF per week,” said Lara Quiroga, director of strategic initiatives for children at Amoskeag Health and a central figure in the city’s Adverse Childhood Experience Response Team which connects children who have been exposed to trauma with services to help them overcome its effects.

“When the schools were closed, referrals immediately dipped to 60 per week. By the end of March it was less than 45 per week,” she said.

“Having things go back to where they were won’t be a reality for quite some time,” noted Quiroga. “The more we can get children out from under the eyes of one adult, the safer at-risk kids will be,” she added.

At the peak of the stay at home order, only 200 of the 900 childcare programs in the state were open. And they were serving only 3,000 children instead of their pre-stay at home 13,000. This doesn’t even include the numbers of children in public schools who no longer have regular contact with outside adults outside of their family.

You don’t need all the facts

Amanda Ouellette is REACH Program Coordinator, with YWCA New Hampshire. Her biggest fear is what children isolated at home with parents who are opioid users may be faced with now.

“My biggest concern, coupled with the opioid crisis, is the neglect piece, she added. “These kids might normally be at school all day. Who knows what their parents are doing now. What are they witnessing? It’s difficult to pick up on this unless you come in contact with them.”

Ouellette and other child advocates emphasize the role every adult in the state has in preventing child abuse. Under state law, every person over the age of 18 is a “mandated reporter” to the Division of Children, Youth and Families if they suspect a child might be subject to physical or emotional abuse, sexual abuse or neglect. 

Ouellette emphasized that a common misconception is that a reporter needs to have all the facts. “It’s not our job as members of the public to investigate the situation,” she said. “It’s our job to report when something is not right.” 

Reports may be made anonymously and will then be investigated by state authorities in coordination with local organizations.

While abuse might be more obvious, child neglect can take more subtle forms like not being fed regularly or having personal hygiene attended to Ouellette explained. Children might be left alone in the house for extended periods of time without supervision because their parents aren’t paying attention to them.

“Neighbors need to be keeping a close eye on kids, particularly if they may have suspected something in the past,” said Ouellette. 

Telltale signs might include hearing constant crying, or banging around in a next-door apartment. Witnessing domestic violence in a home with children present is another warning sign.

Looking for a way out

Calls to Manchester’s REACH domestic violence crisis service center are fluctuating, noted Ouellette. At the beginning of the stay at home order calls were down, but then they began to skyrocket. 

“Our most frequent call now is from someone looking for a way out of their home and leaving their relationship,” she said. “They don’t have an escape now. They were going to work or their partner was going to work and now there are at home and it escalates things or causes things that weren’t there before to appear.”

“Even in healthy relationships people find they need a break from their partner. If they are in an abusive relationship it’s really concerning,” Ouellette stated.

In response to the Covid-19 stay-at-home order the YWCA’s REACH program launched a confidential chat line so that domestic violence victims can communicate with an advocate online or on their cell phone without the risk of being overheard making a telephone call.

“As a community, we need to mobilize our efforts to provide outreach, support and create safe spaces to acknowledge the trauma, violence, abuse and neglect our children, youth and families may be experiencing,” said YWCA CEO Jessica Cantin.

“We are focusing on awareness and prevention now so hopefully we don’t see an immense surge of domestic and sexual violence reporting when school potentially resumes in the fall,” noted Amokeag Health’s Laura Quiroga.