As the world works to contain COVID-19 and respond to its direct and indirect impacts on children and families, child protection remains an important area of work for governments and institutions that affect children. When adults grapple with complex decisions and essential social services are overwhelmed, children are left at increased risk of abuse, neglect and other forms of violence.
When adults are stressed and social services overwhelmed, children need strong advocates more than ever
COVID-19 poses specific child protection challenges. Children whose parents must continue working may be left home unaccompanied, endangering them in the event of an emergency. Older children may be forced to care for younger siblings, disrupting their own childhoods and placing them under additional stress. Many children will also have increased access to the Internet, potentially exposing them to online exploitation and online bullying. Finally, children may also resort to exploitative forms of labor to help their families, a trend observed during and after many humanitarian emergencies around the world.
Globally, UNICEF is partnering with governments and non-governmental organizations to mobilize resources and provide practical solutions to keep children safe in the midst of the pandemic. These efforts focus on disease prevention and ensuring that children remain protected from exploitation, exclusion and violence. They also focus on fighting misinformation and ensuring that parents are aware of coronavirus and know how to protect their families. Tactics like talking openly with children about the disease, publicizing and providing access to support services — regardless of immigration status — and engaging vulnerable families can lower a child's risk of experiencing violence. Moreover, while governments may support policies and allocate funds, local NGOs are playing important roles in both policy creation and implementation.
The Illinois Collaboration on Youth, of which UNICEF USA is a supporting partner, is working to ensure that the state's child protection systems remain in operation despite social distancing measures
For example, the Illinois Collaboration on Youth (ICOY), of which UNICEF USA is a supporting partner, represents and supports nearly 100 organizations serving children, youth and families across Illinois. Over the past two weeks, ICOY has worked to ensure that Illinois' child protection systems effectively remain in operation during this period of limited contact. Notably, they submitted more than 80 recommendations to the office of Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker to protect both children and the work force that serves them. These recommendations encourage actions such as:
- temporarily halting non-emergency juvenile court proceedings for 30 days
- ensuring that essential staff have access to personal protective equipment
- temporarily allowing untrained staff to conduct behavioral management activities as long as certified staff are present
Importantly, ICOY recognizes that emergencies affect groups of children in different ways with the most vulnerable children often requiring additional support. Children in detention and foster care, and those in families requiring protective intervention are a few examples where additional considerations are warranted.
Relationships with local convenors like ICOY are critical to effective child protection efforts. Through their members, these organizations play an important role in both information gathering and sharing. UNICEF uses this approach globally to ensure that programs are both sustainable and culturally competent. ICOY's model of collaboration for impact is an example of how local NGOs and governments can work to deliver decisive wins for children in emergencies.
While emergencies can challenge infrastructure, they are also opportunities for building community and system resilience.
While emergencies can challenge infrastructure, they are also opportunities for building community and system resilience. Recording learnings and incorporating them into cross-sectoral preparedness plans ensures that systems can respond more effectively during the next crisis. UNICEF understands that processes that engage children in response efforts, promote psychological safety and strengthen caregiving environments can provide successful outcomes. Consideration of factors like gender, age, culture and ability ensure that limited resources are directed to the most vulnerable children.
COVID-19 will continue to challenge children and families in the U.S. Beating it will require innovative thinking and the same spirit that led to the creation of UNICEF to meet the needs of children devastated by World War II. Despite the current social disruption, the needs and rights of children remain unchanged. From encouraging governments to allow technology-enabled visits for children in care to supporting legislation that provides emergency assistance to nonprofits, local community organizations are emplying the same equity-based approaches that UNICEF uses to protect children around the world.
Tyehimba Turner is the UNICEF USA Manager of Chicago Community Engagement, Advocacy and Partnerships.
Top photo: On March 18, 2020, a playground at an elementary school in Ridgefield, Connecticut, USA, sits empty following temporary school closures for COVID-19 made effective on March 13. © UNICEF/UNI312343/McIlwaine