School districts across the country have begun offering free meals for kids during this COVID-19 pandemic. Given the sweeping school closings and shutdowns, this is absolutely essential, especially for low-income and homeless children. Local leaders, like Mayor Bill de Blasio in New York City and Mayor Marty Walsh in Boston, deserve praise for pushing these plans. Some big corporations have stepped up, as well, flexing their social responsibility muscle. McDonald’s and Burger King are doing the right thing during this crisis by offering free meals to kids. Yet, it is worth noting that some essentials lost in this global crisis just won’t fit in that grab-and-go lunch bag. One of those essentials is safety.
Although feeding children is an absolute necessity, and school districts and leaders are right in addressing this need, there are other dangerous consequences when kids are restricted by “stay at home” orders. And the peanut butter and jelly sandwich, the apple, or happy meal found within that lunch bag will not be enough when “shelter in place” keeps you in a place of harm.
Kids who are stuck at home during this uncertain time may have bigger problems than boredom and lack of access to healthy meals. The research tells us that about 90 percent of children who are sexually abused know their abuser. And of those, the vast majority are family members – parents, stepparents, grandparents, uncles, and older siblings. So, for the child experiencing this type of abuse, being out of the home regularly is a version of safe and necessary distancing. To those children, the home is infected; school, athletics, and extracurricular activities become the layers of personal protective equipment. Without those protective activities, children are at greater risk.
I was one of those children.
Going to school and playing basketball saved my life. That’s not hyperbole, that’s a fact. Not only did it give me a place to excel academically and athletically, but also it gave me refuge, and it gave me an emotional release from stress. School and sports allowed my exhausted fight-or-flight center deep within my brain—my amygdala—to rest and halt the flood of often-damaging stress hormones. It gave me the distance I needed. That distance was marked by the weight of my worn backpack full of textbooks, notebooks, and broken pencils, as I walked out the door each morning. In one hand I held my revered white Chuck Taylor All-Stars basketball sneakers, and in the other, my favorite basketball flagged with the clear notice of ownership, my name scribbled unevenly in black magic marker.
School and basketball were my escape, and they are the types of escapes that many children may still need, despite this present shutdown of life outside the home. Classrooms, hallways, gyms, and fields are the sanctuaries for kids whose abusers may be waiting at home. Not only are they receiving intellectual stimulation, healthy food, and the benefits of athletic activities, there is another escape beyond measure, an emotional respite from a stinging secret.
When school and youth-serving organizations are closed, so are the many eyes and ears that make up the safe space in a child’s day. Teachers, teacher’s aides, after-school staff, school nurses, coaches, and other youth leaders are often at the front line of defense for kids. They are the eyes and ears of protection, a safety guard, and many are mandated reporters under the law. Under most state statutes, teachers, coaches and other youth leaders are required to report suspicion of child abuse or neglect. They can trigger the alarm that is generally out of a child’s emotional and cognitive reach. When those professionals are removed from a child’s daily life by this social distancing and isolation, children are at an increased risk for harm and abuse.
What actions can we take for these children at risk? A few thoughts. First, for those teachers providing remote learning, how about an emotional check-in at the beginning of class and a keener eye on any evidence of stress. For pick-up breakfast and lunch sites, how about a section for borrowing games, books, and athletic equipment. We should encourage social workers to check-in via FaceTime or video conferencing, and to conduct home visits outside. There are many little things we can do. CHILD USA, the leading national think tank for child protection, has released a checklist for the well-being of children.
Now that social distancing and school shutdowns are bringing some children closer to their abusers, adults and our political leaders owe children more than a free meal. When this bad dream is over, when we finally listen to the science, flatten the infection curve, and learn from our monumental errors in this global pandemic, perhaps we can address the other epidemic—child sexual abuse.
When “stay at home” orders are antithetical to child safety, there must be more we can do. The remedy cannot be limited to a free sandwich, an apple, or salty French fries found at the bottom of a brown paper lunch bag. An effective remedy will require listening to the science, real legislative change, and public education so that the girl in the Chuck Taylors with the basketball tucked under her arm, and every child like her, find shelter in their classrooms, their gymnasiums—and in their homes.