School closures: protecting kids from COVID-19, but what about those suffering abuse?

School closures: protecting kids from COVID-19, but what about those suffering abuse?

While learning from home is being encouraged nationwide to help stop the spread of COVID-19, child protection experts and organisations have raised concerns for children suffering abuse. (Image source: Annie Spratt on Unsplash)

By Mallory Bradley@malbradley_

The fate of face-to-face schooling hangs in the balance for Australian primary and secondary schools, as COVID-19 continues to spread.

All Victorian schools started their entirely online term two on April 14 and ACT public schools will also move to remote learning for term two.

Meanwhile, Queensland and New South Wales will begin the term online for at least the first two weeks.

As for the remaining states, dozens of schools have moved to remote learning and most are encouraging families to keep their children home if they are able.

These measures have been implemented to promote the practice of social distancing and ‘flatten the curve’ but could potentially jeopardise the safety of at-risk children.

While home is the safest place to be to avoid getting sick, it is not the safest environment for children in abusive and domestic violence environments.

Berry Street, the largest child and family welfare organisation in Victoria, acknowledges that the effects of this pandemic can increase the vulnerability of the children and families they support.

In a news release, Berry Street stated that, “it is becoming apparent that the need [for their operation] is greater than ever.”

“Family violence is likely to increase significantly during any lock-down periods.”

Affiliate member of the Australian Centre for Child Protection and child protection lecturer at the University of South Australia, Dr Lesley-anne Ey, agrees that this is a time of heightened risk.

“We know that adversity impacts on child abuse, so the children at home longer in that adversity are probably more at risk,” said Dr Ey.

Dr Ey says that she strongly believes this is a time where both child abuse and domestic violence are going to rise.

Not only will families be managing their children full time, but the financial insecurity and threat of homelessness some will face could also create tensions contributing to this increase.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, in 2018-19, almost 452,000 notifications were made to child protective services alleging child abuse or neglect.

Of these, 171,300 were deemed requiring further investigation and 20 per cent of those notifications were made by school personnel.

Teachers and other school staff are mandated to report suspects of abuse to child protection services on reasonable grounds, but their ability to so is impeded by remote learning.

“While teachers are not interacting with students, it may be less likely that they are able to pick up on some of the indicators that children are being abused,” said Dr Ey.

Additionally, children who are at risk are less likely to notify teachers as they are in their homes rather than in a separate school environment away from family members, according to Dr Ey.

Evidently, without this private contact, the capacity for teachers to be completely aware of, let alone report abuse students may be enduring, is heavily compromised.

In 2018-19, less than one per cent of notifications to child protective services came directly from the child involved and less than ten per cent came from family members.

Disclosures are vital to investigations regarding child protection and isolation will require reports, that would usually come from schools, to come from other sources.

Therefore, the general public now more than ever have a community responsibility to ensure child safety, says Dr Ey, to keep their eyes and ears out and report serious abuse and mistreatment.

Any member of the public can report to state authorities concerns of neglect or abuse that they believe to have caused, or have the potential cause, physical or emotional harm.

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