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For the luckiest of us, the coronavirus outbreak has made life stressful. The isolation, the economic and social disruption, the close quarters, and the pervasive uncertainty. The strain is always there, and it makes every day harder.
Imagine, now, that days were already hard. Imagine if you were barely getting by, working an hourly job at a restaurant or on a cleaning crew. Imagine you couldn’t take care of yourself when you’re sick, because you have kids and an aging parent at home who depend on you.
Imagine you struggled with mental illness or alcohol or drug dependence, but you couldn’t get the care you knew you needed because you were uninsured. Before the outbreak, every day was fear, uncertainty and stress.
That’s the reality many Kansas parents already faced. And additional push provided by coronavirus and its impact on our lives will surely send some tumbling into the abyss. And their children with them, as victims of abuse or neglect.
That’s not conjecture, it’s fact. Research shows that the factors linked most closely with child abuse and neglect include deprivation, unmet mental health needs and untreated substance abuse. And it’s what the child-serving organizations that are members of the Children’s Alliance of Kansas see every day in the faces of children and parents who have dropped over the edge.
School and child care center closures add to the danger, because they see children routinely and are well-positioned to spot the early warning signs of maltreatment. And “social distancing” practices have complicated social workers’ efforts to check in with and provide support for families at risk for maltreatment.
There are three things we can all do to mitigate the harm.
First, reach out to the parents in your life. Contact your family and friends, your co-workers and neighbors, moms and dads you know from school or church. Ask them how they are doing and if they need someone to talk to. Ask how their children are holding up.
Listen for warning signs, like a withdrawn demeanor, avoidance of a conversation about their children, a lack of concern with the children’s well-being or indications that the strain of parenting during the crisis is becoming unmanageable.
Second, don’t be afraid to seek help by calling Kansas Children’s Service League’s Parent Helpline at 1-800-CHILDREN or downloading the mobile app. This is a free, statewide, anonymous information and referral service. It provides a trained person on the other end who will listen, empathize with your situation and offer support. There’s no question too small or problem too big.
Third, call your representatives in Topeka to tell them that protecting children from maltreatment is especially important right now. Lawmakers have passed an emergency unemployment extension, which will ease the strain for some.
But there is much more leaders can do to mitigate the economic and health risks, including expanding KanCare eligibility, increasing mental health and substance treatment funding, and bolstering tax credits and programs that provide a buffer against poverty.
The Legislature is recessed because of coronavirus but plans to return in April to finalize a state budget that could serve as the vehicle for critical relief.
A lot of things are out of our control right now. But we can all take action to keep struggling families away from the edge and protect children from maltreatment during this crisis.
Let’s look back on this moment and remember that we did all we could.
Christie Appelhanz is the executive director of the Children’s Alliance of Kansas, which is based in Topeka.