Children's Health

COVID pandemic may have hidden a significant increase in child abuse, say doctors

UK doctors are concerned that the COVID pandemic may have hidden a significant increase in child maltreatment. Speaking at the United Kingdom Imaging and Oncology Congress in Liverpool, Professor Owen Arthurs (Great Ormond Street Hospital, London) called for greater resources to detect abuse, especially if future COVID waves lead to new lockdown conditions.

Professor Arthurs said:

Unfortunately, many of the systems which would normally pick up violence against children just didn’t work during the pandemic, particularly during lockdown. Schools were closed, meaning that teachers did not come into contact with abused children, and other regular visitors to the home were restricted. Families being together for longer periods increased exposure to abusers, and potentially made it harder for a partner to report concerns. We know that violence against women increased during the pandemic; Given the evidence of a general increase in domestic violence, plus the disruption to reporting systems caused by COVID, it would be surprising if child maltreatment had not increased”.

The NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) reported that during the pandemic period in 2020/21, calls from adults concerned about the wellbeing of children rose by 23%, to a record high of 85,000. In addition, they report that from April 2020 to April 2021, there was a 19% increase in reported deaths of serious harm where abuse or neglect was suspected.

In-depth surveys of UK children’s radiologists (doctors who interpret scans such as x-rays) were unable to prove a significant increase of child abuse during the pandemic, however as Professor Arthurs said:

Radiologists generally only see the most serious evidence of abuse, where we may be looking at broken bones or internal damage. However there is a national shortage of radiologists, particularly of pediatric radiologists, and of course, many were diverted to other priorities during the COVID pandemic. We need to raise awareness amongst all staff looking after children of the need to be vigilant, especially if we face another lockdown“.

Dr Katharine Halliday, incoming President of the Royal College of Radiologists agreed, stating that “The 2021 Royal College of Radiologists workforce census showed an extremely serious shortfall in the numbers of pediatric radiologists putting the lives of vulnerable children at risk“.

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