Protecting Children Against Abuse During a Pandemic
Prior to the first wave of COVID-19 and the closure of the state, Megan, alongside Sara Eleoff Van Durme, MD, MPH, FAAP, physician lead for the Center, and their team were seeing an increase in patients, especially crisis patients, in the Emergency Department. Since then, volumes have significantly decreased causing a major concern for the team.
"We are worried that the chance of child abuse is increasing right now because of all the factors of COVID-19 that families are facing: people are out of work, people are home, and they are not getting out of the house," Megan said. "But, unfortunately, because there are less eyes on the children, we are seeing less reports. Schools are a primary resource for reporting abuse and neglect. When kids aren't in school, a decline in reporting occurs. There's a lot of research articles out right now surrounding the concern of an increase in unreported abuse.”
The GBMC Center for the Protection of Children works with victims across the spectrum of child maltreatment including physical abuse, sexual abuse, human trafficking, neglect and substance-exposed newborns. It is made up of a multi-disciplinary team working to identify, evaluate and manage children who may be victims of maltreatment.
"We're the only hospital in Baltimore County that has this program, and actually, the only other hospital in the state that has this program is Johns Hopkins," Megan said. "But the way the city is set up, sexual abuse cases go to University of Maryland Medical Center and physical abuse cases go to Johns Hopkins. Whereas the uniqueness of GBMC is we can provide sexual and physical abuse care services for everyone. We’re able to provide that ‘one-stop shop’ so to speak."
It's a heavy load that is becoming more taxing with the uncertainty and concern for children in the community during this time, but Megan is working harder than ever to take care of children and it shows.
"She definitely doesn’t do this job for the recognition or seek it, but she certainly deserves it," Emily
Smith, LMSW, a social worker for maternal health at GBMC, said. "My office is next to hers, and I can see and hear how hard she is working to stay in contact with the local DSS (Department of Social Services) offices and other organizations to best serve the children in our community during these unprecedented times. We have both expressed our worry with children being out of school and the lack of mandated reporting that is likely occurring as a result."
Even with phases of reopening sweeping across Maryland, hospitals are still the primary source of identification for these vulnerable children in addition to individuals staying vigilant of their neighbors and friends.
"Our staff, when we started the program, all completed training on what to look for when treating a child in the Emergency Department and how to recognize abuse," Megan said, "Our pediatric nurses and doctors are very good about identifying red flags and any time there is a concern they call me directly."
For community members, the best way to help is to stay educated. The Baltimore County Police Department Crimes Against Children (CAC) Unit is the best place to call (410-853-3650) if you suspect child abuse or maltreatment, and GBMC (443-849-STOP) continues to serve as a community resource for everyone seeking help as well. The Center for Protection of Children team partners externally with DSS, the CAC Unit, the Child Advocacy Center and more to ensure full coverage of help and service for children, but works most closely internally with GBMC's Sexual Assault Forensic Examination (SAFE) and Domestic Violence (DV) program. Both teams have adapted their admissions process to bypass the Emergency Department as much as possible in order to avoid exposure to COVID-19. Families should feel safe bringing children to GBMC if they need to for these cases.
Unfortunately, during a pandemic or not, abuse is still prevalent. GBMC is grateful to have the Center for the Protection of Children, Megan and the team to serve when families and victims need them most.