Child sexual abuse expected to rise amid COVID-19 pandemic, experts say

Experts are worried about an increase in child abuse during the COVID-19 pandemic. Su-Ling Goh

Alberta experts in child sexual abuse prevention are predicting an increase in incidents over the coming months.

COVID-19 forced the closure of the Little Warriors Be Brave Ranch — a non-profit treatment centre near Edmonton for survivors of child sexual abuse. Staff members will continue therapies online and by phone for 25 children and teens who were staying at the facility, along with about 75 more families across Canada.

Clinical director Dr. Wanda Polzin is concerned about how the pandemic will affect all vulnerable children. Global News asked her what she feels we need to know.

The following interview has been edited for brevity.

Q: Why might children be more at risk for abuse during this time?

A: With the COVID-19 pandemic, it is a perfect storm for child abuse to amp up. Even without the present stressors, child sexual abuse continues [with] studies confirming one in four girls and one in six boys under the age of 18 are sexually abused in Canada.
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With families being in states of toxic stress more than ever, COVID-19 is tipping the scales toward increased vulnerable situations where children are more likely to be left unsupervised with other children or unsafe adults as a result of school closures. Further, increased financial stressors due to parents/caregivers now being out of work, [along with] anxiety, create increased domestic violence and substance misuse with nowhere [for kids] to safely call home.

Q: Are there any warning signs that friends or even neighbours could watch for?

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A: There are signs such as a child/teen speaking out about being harmed in some way (this should always be taken seriously), journalling/writing about negative experiences, changes in mental health (increased anxiety, depressed mood, increased behavioural acting out, sleep issues, etc.).

Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, many children, teens and families will exhibit these same “red flags“ due to the stressors upon us. [Pay] attention to interactions with neighbours, loud arguing, unusual bruising, etc.
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Although we need to socially distance ourselves, it is important that we come together and safely reach out within our immediate family circles as well as within our communities.

Click to play video: 'Coping with stress and anxiety during COVID-19 pandemic'
Coping with stress and anxiety during COVID-19 pandemic

Q: If someone sees or hears something that they’re concerned about, what should they do?

A: It’s always better to err on the side of caution and report concerns to child and family services or police/RCMP in their particular jurisdiction.

Q: What tips do you have for families?

A: It is important that you know alternative caregivers; this is particularly important as schools are no longer operating. Children can be more vulnerable as a result of caregivers desperately trying to find child care.

Be aware that too much news can create a vicarious trauma effect. It can become overwhelming for little ones and the repetitive nature of the pandemic messages can create anxiety to the point of toxic stress.
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Create [your own] space for yourself as well as your child while staying home. Without this, children’s and parents’ window of tolerance for each other grows very small. Be proactive and try to loosely plan the day with activities while maintaining social distancing… reading, followed by exercise, an indoor scavenger hunt, etc. Support your child/teen with various activities using social media, Pinterest, etc.
Do your best to practice mindful self-care to support your own positive mental health. Remember: you are the template for your child. They will follow your lead. Connection is more important than correction.
Try as best as you can to maintain a routine. (I know this is hard when kids are out of school, but it supports safe boundaries and a feeling of “we got this”).
Let your child/teen talk about their worries but do not over-focus on them.
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Try to lead your child/youth with grounding/calming exercises and/or quality connection time. If nothing else, this time together allows us to connect like never before. Practice coping skills together with your child…share with them what YOU do that works!
Help them create a daily self-care routine (using music, gratitude journalling, art projects, nature walks, games, books, movies, collaging, cooking/baking, exercising, etc.).
[In summary] it’s important to follow the expert advice regarding COVID-19. Being socially isolated creates new, difficult experiences for us. We are all going through a period of grief and loss in the short term, but also in the projected future. To overcome stress, it is important to try to maintain routines, create space individually for self care and creatively reach out to others using social media, telephones and any other way that is safe to do so.

Humans are social beings and we need healthy contact.

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