Report: During COVID-19, Iowa children may be more prone to abuse and neglect

By: - September 24, 2020 4:36 pm

(Photo by Johner Images/Getty)

Iowa children, and particularly children from non-white families, are more at risk of experiencing abuse, neglect or a household challenge in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new statewide report that looks at adverse childhood experiences.

The majority of Iowa adults have reported going through an adverse experience, ranging from divorce to being neglected by adults with substance abuse issues, according to pre-pandemic data collected by the Iowa Department of Public Health in 2017-18.

But as COVID-19 creates more financial and health burdens for families to overcome, children in homes where adults may already feel high stress are more prone to abuse and neglect, according to a report published by Iowa ACEs 360, a non-profit organization that aims to reduce childhood traumas.

“A lot of the families we know face greater challenges,” said Lisa Cushatt, director of Iowa ACEs.

Negative childhood experiences are measured though “adverse childhood experiences,” also known as ACEs. There are 10 types of adversity children may go through, including emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, parents separation and witnessing domestic violence.

The higher number of “ACEs” children experience, the more likely they are to develop poor health conditions and engage in risky behavior, such as smoking or drinking, when they are an adult.

COVID-19 and children of color

In Iowa, people of color have reported positive COVID-19 infection rates at a rate three times higher than white Iowans.

One-in-four Iowa adults also reported experiencing anxiety or depression over a one-week period in May during the pandemic, according to the study. The derecho has also left families without their homes and more vulnerable to food shortages.

High stress at home puts children in more vulnerable positions and they are more likely to experience a negative event that hurts their development into adulthood, according to the study.

“In a year of a pandemic, of natural disasters and of a reckoning around systemic discrimination, I think all of us today can see how all three of these contribute to trauma that’s experienced by children and families,” Cushatt said.

Young Latino Iowans in particular are in a more vulnerable position at the moment, due to both political stressors and health risks they are more likely to face than other populations, according to the study.

Children and teens in Latino families may be dealing with the strains and fears of separation and deportation if their families are undocumented, while the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the high number of Latinos who face the risk of exposure at work, particularly at meatpacking plants, according to the study.

Because they may be undocumented, they’re unable to receive government resources to help them through the economic and health stressors of the pandemic.

“While we know trauma impacts everyone, higher rates of ACEs are more significant in some populations,” Cushatt said.

Solutions and support

With community support and the building of “resiliency,” children are better equipped to feel safe and learn in their environments, according to the study.

Some children may not have the daily resources and staff that can provide support if they are enrolled in virtual learning.

That makes it essential that children are still accessing resources, such as food, counseling and well-being checks, Cushatt said.

“Children in particular need a safe, stable equitable space to learn and grow,” said Suzanne Mineck, director of Mid-Iowa Health Foundation. “They need to feel as though they matter to the community … That’s not the work of parents alone.”

While significant prolonged stress can shape a child’s brain, positive experiences such as access to healthcare, supportive relationships, financial stability and skills for coping and adapting can lower the chances of a child developing poor mental health, even if they had adverse experiences, according to the study.

Particularly with the COVID-19 pandemic — considered a “collective trauma” because of its broad negative consequences — it becomes more critical to offer policies that better help low-income and Iowans of color, according to the study.

“Many of you know this is only getting worse with COVID,” said Erin Drinnin United Way’s Community Impact Officer for Health. “A lot of the families we know face even greater challenges with physical and mental health and financial stability and we know people of color are being disproportionately impacted right now. Solutions must include everyone if we’re going to thrive together.”

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