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Protecting children during lockdown

14 July 2020, Action for Change

The risks to children at home and online when the world changed forever 

As the world started to shut down in March due to coronavirus restrictions, child protection advocates grew concerned. With children at home more and spending more time online, would they be in harm’s way? 

Save the Children Australia’s Head of Child Protection Karen Flanagan says right now there’s no evidence to suggest child abuse has increased. But she warns the risks to children have increased with enforced lockdown.

With increased time at home, there are going to be positives and negatives. The positives are that more parents are spending more quality time with their children. But if there are existing stressors in families or if the lockdown has put families under pressure this could increase the risks of harm to children. If there’s a history of family violence that could increase.

Karen Flanagan, Save the Children Australia’s Head of Child Protection

A whole host of risks can emerge from children spending more time at home, including sibling violence or sexual abuse, online exploitation, child abuse or family violence all caused by the health and economic emergency the world is now experiencing. 


 

Online predators

As children moved to online learning, for example, there was more potential for children to be exposed to sex offenders online, says Karen. “I’ve seen evidence that there is more online activity by sex offenders looking for children who are spending more time online because of COVID-19. Sex offenders are always online, that’s their playground. But COVID-19 might have given them access to new groups of children who previously didn’t spend as much time online. Parental supervision and awareness of children’s online behaviour is key to reducing that risk.”

She notes that during lockdown, traditional avenues of reporting may not have been available to children who wanted to tell an adult about abuse or harm. “We were really worried because a lot of the work paused there for systems and informal community-based organisations that normally reach out and help vulnerable families. It’s fair to say that a support network that exists in normal times was not there for many children. Community-based services had to adapt by providing online counselling, apps, and different ways of helping people. 

Children don’t normally tell anyone about sexual abuse. It’s found because teachers, neighbours, family or friends might notice a change in behaviour. With schools closed, and social distancing in place, many children who were showing behaviour change that would have been flagged, may have gone unnoticed.

Karen Flanagan, Save the Children Australia’s Head of Child Protection

Children at risk overseas

It will be months before a clear picture emerges from Australia about whether child abuse increased during the lockdown, advises Karen. But evidence overseas suggests children, especially girls, are at real risk of dropping out of school and into forced marriages. “Girls are most likely to lose out because we have to work hard to keep girls at school. We’re worried that there will be a drop in the girls that return to school after restrictions ease, because families have become more dependent on them doing domestic work. There may well be an increase in early and forced child marriage – as families lose their livelihoods, they start to think about how to reduce the economic burden in their household.” 

But staying engaged with girls and their families will help protect them from the risks they face.

We have pivoted most of our projects to deal with the impact of COVID-19. We’ve written advice guides, we’ve had webinars, we’ve trained our staff in the ethics of using social media to reach families. Our staff have been incredible in mobilising to support children and families in any way they can.

Karen Flanagan, Save the Children Australia’s Head of Child Protection

It’s that engagement that will be critical in the weeks and months ahead to help protect children as the world resumes to a new normal. “With the lockdown, some communities became stronger,” notes Karen. “People were volunteering to go grocery shopping and neighbours were looking out for each other. It would be nice if we remembered that sense of community and retained it. When communities are looking out for each other and you can see kids in the street, child protection takes a front seat. Children know they’re being looked out for and they can talk to neighbours.” 

COVID-19 has forced families together, for better and for worse. Some families will be doing it much worse and there will have been opportunity for people to abuse children. But I’m hoping that there has been as many cases where people have had time out and had great fun with their children. Children will remember this time for the rest of their lives.

Karen Flanagan, Save the Children Australia’s Head of Child Protection

If you are concerned about a child’s safety it is important that you say something. To report online child sexual exploitation please contact the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation and use the Report Abuse button. To otherwise report a crime, call Crimestoppers on 1800 333 000 or contact your local police.

If you are concerned about a child at risk of abuse or harm, contact the following department in your state or territory.  
    
ACT – Community Services
New South Wales – Department of Family and Community Services
Victoria – Department of Health and Human Services 
Northern Territory – Territory Families
Tasmania – Department of Communities
Queensland – Department of Child Safety, Youth and Women
South Australia – Department for Child Protection 
Western Australia – Department of Communities, Child Protection and Family Support

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