Child abuse, food insecurity exacerbated by COVID-19

Pandemic teaches parents of cyber safety: Central Alberta Child Advocacy Centre CEO

Canadian children, including those in central Alberta, have been adversely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

A new report reveals that many of the top threats to childhood, including mental illness, food insecurity, child abuse, physical inactivity and poverty may be increasing – or are in danger of increasing – because of the ongoing pandemic.

The report, jointly published by Children First Canada, the University of Calgary Cumming School of Medicine’s O’Brien Institute for Public Health and the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute, highlights new data related to the threats and points to emerging concerns.

The report says one-third of children in Canada do not enjoy a safe and healthy childhood, one in three Canadians has experienced abuse before the age of 15, one in five children live in poverty, and suicide is now the leading cause of death for children aged 10 to 14.

“For more than a decade, the state of childhood in Canada has been on the decline. In recent months, the harsh realities facing young Canadians have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” the report states.

Mark Jones, CEO at the Central Alberta Child Advocacy Centre, says the trend would also be true for central Alberta children.

“I’m not overly surprised by (the data), but it’s about how we’re dealing with them, what we’re trying to do to solve the problem,” he said, explaining the ongoing pandemic has also highlighted the positives in the community.

“Central Alberta is not afraid to talk – we’re learning how to talk about our mental health: that it’s OK to not be OK. We’re learning to talk about child abuse. We’re learning to band together as a group to change the way central Alberta deals with child abuse.”

In terms of physical activity, the numbers show that 35 per cent of five- to 17-year-olds met the guidelines of 60 minutes of daily physical activity before COVID-19 hit. Now, just 4.8 per cent of children ages five to 11, and 0.8 per cent of youth between ages 12 and 17 are meeting 24-hour movement guidelines.

Jones said he expected the physical activity numbers to drop. Around March and April, there wasn’t much happening, especially with the cancellation of sports.

“July and August have been good, because the weather has been good, but people still weren’t able to go out and do their organization sporting things they normally would,” he said.

“Normally, the fields in Red Deer in the summer are full of laughter. Soccer balls and baseballs are being hit, and all the things that are in our community, they weren’t there.”

According to the report, family violence against children and youth increased by seven per cent between 2017 and 2018. Now, the World Health Organization calls violence against children the hidden crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We really have no idea what was happening at homes, because kids weren’t able to tell, so we speculate there was lots of things happening at home,” he said.

“We know online luring and domestic violence issues were up because people have lost jobs and they’re living in closed quarters.”

On a positive note, Jones said the pandemic has taught families to deal with issues such as cyber safety, which has always been a concern, but came to the fore when classes were pushed online.

“It became an opportunity for parents and caregivers to engage into how to keep their kids safe online,” he explained.

He also notes various agencies are pushing unique ways to raise funds to help a community in need, which has only created “a feeling of togetherness.”

“We’re learning from (the pandemic) every day.”

The report notes in 2017, 18.6 per cent of children under 18 were living in poverty. Now, 29 per cent of Canadians report the COVID-19 situation is having a moderate or major impact on their ability to meet financial obligations or essential needs.

About 8.7 per cent of Canadian households were food insecure in 2017-2018. Now, 15 per cent of Canadians indicated living in a household where they experienced food insecurity in the past 30 days.

Jones said it was a quick entrance into the pandemic, but it’ll be a slow exit, for all of us, including central Albertans.

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