Coronavirus: Doctors ‘concerned’ over child abuse risk during pandemic

Training for medical staff in identifying abuse signs stepped up, says Tallaght hospital consultant

Training amongst medical staff in identifying signs of child abuse ‘has been stepped up in the past month’

Training amongst medical staff in identifying signs of child abuse ‘has been stepped up in the past month’


Irish doctors are concerned that children in families under increased stress due to Covid-19 are at risk of abuse, a consultant in paediatric emergency medicine has said.

Dr Ciara Martin at Tallaght University Hospital in Dublin said training among medical staff in identifying signs of child abuse had been stepped up in the past month.

She was responding to a new UK study that identifies a “surge in domestic child abuse during the coronavirus pandemic”.

The study noted a dramatic increase in incidents recorded at one British paediatric hospital in just one month period between March and April, compared to the same period over the previous three years.

This “silent pandemic”, the focus of a study published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood journal, found 10 children – six boys and four girls aged from 17 days to 13 months – with suspected abusive head trauma.

Those figures compared to an average of 0.67 cases a month over the previous three years.

The children attended hospital with a variety of symptoms including colic, breathing issues, loss of consciousness, seizures, extensive bruising and swollen scalps.

After examination, cases of subdural haemorrhage, brain swelling and bruising of the tissue, as well as skull and other fractures were diagnosed.

The report’s authors noted a “complex interplay between abuse, mental health, substance misuse and socio-economic factors”.

“This sobering figure is likely under-represented due to public avoidance of hospitals at this time.”

Dr Martin said Irish medics are concerned for children of all ages and that while they had observed a small increase in children presenting with non-accidental injuries, it remains too early to ascertain any pattern.

“Intuitively and knowing what we know, Irish paediatricians have been concerned that lockdown would put strain on families and that children would be at risk,” she told The Irish Times.

“The risk is as described: close contact with a family under stress, worsening economic stress, fear of attending hospitals and less contact with wider family and healthcare visitors who could pick up on warning signs early and provide support to the family.”

She said doctors encouraged anyone with concerns to come forward and that their role was not to judge but to help people.

“Child abuse is an iceberg and what presents is not the whole story. The aim is to recognise this more often; and we have actively increased training in this area over the past month so that our doctors and nurses in the paediatric EDs [emergency departments] have a heightened awareness of non accidental injury and the skills to respond to families at risk.”

Barnardos chief executive Suzanne Connolly said she was concerned there would be a rise in abuse cases during the Covid-19 lockdown period.

“It’s undoubted that there will have been an increase in emotional abuse, and possibly physical abuse,” she said.

A former social worker, Ms Connolly explained not every parent – particularly some with substance abuse or mental health issues – had the resources to cope with children, especially at a time of “heightened” stress.

“There has been, and rightly so, a lot of attention toward violence in relation to women; so what about children?” she said of recent months.

On Wednesday, Barnardos issued a statement saying vulnerable children “will have been exposed to situations behind closed doors that we are not yet aware of” and that without intervention and support, such experiences could have a long term negative impact.

The charity noted that typical support networks offered by teachers and other trusted adults had “disappeared overnight”.