27 Jul, 2021
COVID-19 and Vulnerable Children
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted communities everywhere and has made many children more vulnerable, especially those already at risk. UNICEF’s recently released 2020 Annual Report underscores how 2020 was a year like no other for children. School closures, increased vulnerability to abuse, mental health strains and loss of access to vital services have hurt children deeply. The pandemic, the report explains, “has exposed deep inequalities that have existed for too long, with the worst consequences on children in the poorest countries and communities and those already disadvantaged” (UNICEF 2021).
Research pertaining to the pandemic’s impacts on children from various backgrounds is still unsettled, particularly in Canada, but some preliminary findings are available. We know, for example, that the pandemic has worsened conditions and intensified risks for vulnerable children in the youth justice and child welfare systems, children living in unstable environments, and homeless youth. There is evidence that, in many situations, children became more vulnerable to violence, abuse, and exploitation as a result of the pandemic (Heldman et al., 2020). In addition, several studies revealed that the pandemic and restrictive public health measures have affected children’s access to vital services.
Children in contact with the youth justice system faced many challenges during the pandemic, some of which may have a life-long impact. The restrictions and lockdowns imposed to reduce the spread of COVID-19 have aggravated these challenges for incarcerated youth (Batemen, 2020; Buchanan et al., 2020). In many instances, family and friend visitations were suspended, adding to the traumatic effect of incarceration; calls and online meetings with family were facilitated by institutional staff but not without difficulties (Ontario Ministry of Children, Community, and Social Services, 2020; Posick et al., 2020). The contact restrictions and lockdowns also reduced or suspended schooling and other programs in custodial facilities.
Child protection was drastically impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Children in care were encouraged to maintain family contact and relationships, but COVID-19 created new barriers. Some children were placed in care due to the impact of the pandemic on their family or caregivers. Children were generally unable to visit family members or their siblings in foster care due to the restrictions made necessary by the pandemic. For some children, this was traumatic. Children struggling with mental health issues or other personal challenges experienced great difficulty accessing the support and treatment they needed (The University of Toronto, 2020). The pressure and fear of contracting the virus or transmitting it to family members were an additional source of stress and anxiety for children in foster care or already experiencing psychological distress.
Vulnerable children living in unstable homes also faced increased risks. Closures of schools and childcare services negatively impacted working parents, leading in some cases to child neglect (Katz et al., 2020). Moreover, parents could not always rely on extended family or friends to help with their children due to the restrictions limiting in-person contacts. The pandemic also significantly increased unemployment and intensified financial hardship for poverty-stricken families. Poverty created stress within the home and increased the chances of substance abuse, child abuse, child neglect, and mental health issues (OECD, 2020). Before the pandemic, school staff and teachers were sometimes able to identify abused or neglected children but, with school closures, the detection of child neglect and abuse has significantly decreased (Posick et al., 2020). Widespread digitalization mitigated the education loss caused by school-closures, but the poorest children were least likely to live in a home-learning environment with internet connection and other support. The pandemic further exposed the digital divide and unequal access to quality education.
Shelters and housing for homeless children are understaffed and, within their limited capacity, were not always able to maintain social distancing or isolation without turning away children in need. Homeless children experienced challenges accessing supports and services within the community, as well as necessities such as food, harm reduction supplies, and shelter since the beginning of the pandemic (Buchnea, McKitterick, & French, 2020).
The pandemic revealed some deep inequalities and had a disproportionate impact on children and families already disadvantaged by discrimination, social exclusion, fragility and conflict. The pandemic has heightened the urgency to address issues such as mental health, violence in the home, the needs of children without family care, and the situation of children in conflict with the law. It is time to seriously consider the well thought out policy options advanced by the OECD to mitigate the impact of the present and future pandemics on vulnerable children.
Batemen, T. (2020). Unjust pains: the impact of COVID-19 on children in prison. Journal of Children Services, 15(4), 201-208. https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/JCS-07-2020-0045/full/pdf?title=unjust-pains-the-impact-of-covid-19-on-children-in-prison
Buchanan, M., Castro, E.D., Kushner, M., Krohn, M.D. (2020). Its f**ing chaos: COVID-19 impact juvenile delinquency and juvenile justice. American Journal of Criminal Justice, 45, 578-600. https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007/s12103-020-09549-x.pdf
Buchnea, A., McKitterick, M.J., & French, D. (2020). Youth Homelessness & COVID-19: How the Youth-Serving Sector is Coping with the Crisis. Toronto: Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and A Way Home Canada. https://www.homelesshub.ca/sites/default/files/attachments/COVID-19_SUMMARY_REPORT%20%281%29_0.pdf
Heldman, J.K., Dalton, M.A., & Fellmeth, R.C. (2020). COVID-19 and Preventing Harm to Vulnerable Children. San Diego Law Review, 57, 865-918. https://digital.sandiego.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3390&context=sdlr
Katz, C., Filho, S.R.P., Korbin, J., Berube, A., Fouche, A., Haffejee, S., Mafigiri, D.K., Jack, M.K., Munoz, P., Spilsbury, J., Tarabulsy, G., Tiwari, A., Levine, D.T., Truter, E., & Varela, N. (2020). Child maltreatment in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic: A proposed global framework on research, policy and practice. Child Abuse & Neglect. Published online 20 November 2020. main.pdf (nih.gov)
OECD (2020). Combatting COVID-19’s Effect on Children. Tackling Coronavirus (COVID-19): Contributing to a Global Effort. https://read.oecd-ilibrary.org/view/?ref=132_132643-m91j2scsyh&title=Combatting-COVID-19-s-effect-on-children.
Ontario Ministry of Children, Community, and Social Services (2021). Youth and the Law: Update on services during COVID-19 outbreak. http://www.children.gov.on.ca/htdocs/English/youthandthelaw/index.aspx
Posick, C., Schueths, A. A., Christian, C., Grubb, J. A., & Christian, S. E. (2020). Child Victim Services in the Time of COVID-19: New Challenges and Innovative Solutions. American Journal of Criminal Justice, 45(4), 680–689https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007/s12103-020-09543-3.pdf.
University of Toronto (2020). Child Welfare and Pandemics Literature Scan. https://cwrp.ca/sites/default/files/publications/Child%20Welfare%20and%20Pandemics%20Literature%20Scan_2020%20ENGLISH.pdf
UNICEF (2021). Responding to COVID-19: UNICEF Annual Report 2020. New York: UNICEF. https://www.unicef.org/media/100946/file/UNICEF%20Annual%20Report%202020.pdf
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