Child maltreatment (CM) affects children globally, by the means of physical, sexual and emotional abuse and neglect, by children’s parents and other caregivers. Children also suffer from physical punishment and from seeing domestic violence at home. Child maltreatment causes children serious short and longterm consequences, like impairing brain development, damaging other parts of nervous system, as well as the endocrine, circulatory, musculoskeletal, reproductive, respiratory and immune systems. Child maltreatment also leads to mental health problems, or even causes the death to the child.
WHO has published strategies and guidelines for preventing child maltreatment globally (https://www.who.int/health-topics/violence-against-children#tab=tab_1) Child maltreatment has been banned in 59 countries, latest in Japan, in 2020. Sweden was the first one, in 1979, Finland in 1984, and e.g. France in 2019. Legislation towards child maltreatment decreases CM prevalence but other prevention means are also needed. European Commission funded ERICA Project (https://projects.tuni.fi/erica/) aims to prevent CM in European context by creating free-access pan-European training program and a mobile application for risk assessment, also for parental use. ERICA started in the end of 2019, for two years. After that, we have been facing COVID19 pandemic, which affects also children’s situation in Italy, France, UK, Germany, Poland and Finland who participate in ERICA.
During the present COVID19 pandemic, CM has increased in all European countries, also globally. According to WHO (https://www.who.int/news-room/detail/08-04-2020-joint-leader-s-statement—violence-against-children-a-hidden-crisis-of-the-covid-19-pandemic), we face impending crisis of child maltreatment, due to movement restrictions, loss of income, isolation, overcrowding, and stress, uncertainty and anxiety for many families. Lockdowns bring rise in domestic violence (DV). Children are especially vulnerable to many secondary impacts of the pandemic on society, like direct rise in trauma and suffering. Children may lose their support networks, like school due to the lockdown, and they have fewer adult eyes on their situation. Pandemic increases the long lasting impacts of ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) to children. These impacts are still quite poorly understood and often minimized in societies.
In Finland, three children have already died due to CM during the pandemic in 2020 (MTV 13.5. 2020). The biggest increase is in sexual abuse, concerning under 7 year-olds. Use of child welfare clinic visits have decreased 45% (compared to April 2019, Helsingin Sanomat 8th May, 2020) which means that Finnish families with children do not probably get the support they need. Help line calls and shelter visits have increased. E.g. in France, Italy and UK, child protection emergency calls and other markers of CM and DV have increased.
UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore writes in Helsingin Sanomat (16th May, 2020) that COVID19 pandemic causes a large scale catastrophe for children globally, affecting their health and wellbeing. She reminds that all children are under protection of international, global programs and guidelines, and many national and international laws stress importance of putting children’s wellbeing first. The effects of a pandemic on children need to be anticipated and monitored. Risks must be prepared for with strong support measures. Child welfare figures should now be monitored as tightly as coronavirus infection and mortality figures.
As conclusion, novel solutions need to be explored for preventing CM, which will be done in ERICA. We will provide training and mobile tools for preventing child maltreatment, by helping professionals of different fields to understand and tackle CM better, and also by helping parents themselves understand and assess their family life and behavior with children.
The Guardian. March 28th, 2020. Lockdowns around the world bring rise in domestic violence.
End violence against childten.2020. Protecting children during the COVID19 outbreak: Resources to reduce violence and abuse. Available: https://www.end-violence.org/protecting-children-during-COVID-19-outbreak
Eija Paavilainen. 2020. Available: https://alusta.uta.fi/2020/04/24/can-child-maltreatment-be-prevented-with-parents-self-evaluation/
Hughes K, Bellis M, Hardcastle K, Sethi D, Butchart A, Mikton C, Jones L, Dunne M. The effect of multiple adverse childhood experiences on health: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Lancet Public Health 2017;2: e356-66