Has violence against children increased during the pandemic?

Professor Laura Korhonen and psychologist Erica Mattelin agree: a lack of current, reliable statistics makes it difficult to say whether violence against children is increasing or decreasing during the COVID-19 pandemic. They point out that insufficient evidence means that we risk setting the wrong priorities.

Erica Mattelin  and Lara Korhonen. Erica Mattelin and Laura Korhonen at the Swedish national center on violence against children.  Ulrik Svedin

This is an opinion piece, published in Swedish newspapers, e.g. Svenska Dagbladet, SvD (May 12, 2020).

During the COVID-19 pandemic, violence against children has received a good deal of attention. Debate has largely centred on the risk of increased exposure to violence in close relations when people are forced to live in isolation owing to the pandemic, on the possible worsening of the situation for already vulnerable children, and on the danger of online sexual abuse. But are there, in fact, any reliable statistics relating to the situation so far during the COVID-19 crisis?
Limited information from helplines and chatlines aimed at children suggest that the number of calls has increased, but exact figures have not been published. In comparison, NCK’s Kvinnofridslinje has not detected any increase in internet searches, and neither child and adolescent psychiatry nor paediatric medicine services has reported an increased influx of patients. In TV4’s survey (22 April 2020), only 20 of 179 municipalities stated that the number of reports of concern has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. Crime statistics for March and April showed no clear indication of increased violence against children.

Is there a problem here?

Indeed, there is: the lack of current, reliable statistics means that it is difficult to say whether violence against children has increased or not during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As things stand, we are rather fumbling in the dark when it comes to, for example, setting priorities. The decisions that need to be made are based largely on assumed risk and data from other countries, which may have chosen different ways of handling the COVID-19 pandemic compared to Sweden.  
It will be an important future task to study how children’s vulnerability and the problem of violence differ between the countries that have taken different solutions. But a thorough analysis of needs and consequences is needed in Sweden to see how the system is working as a whole. Reliable figures, also known as indicator data, are required for this.

An insufficient statistical basis for decision-making can lead to negative effects upon the system. One example is setting lower priorities for non-acute cases within healthcare and the social services if a rush of more urgent cases is expected. There is thus a risk that non-urgent cases are postponed and that longer queues form, which may prove costly in the long term. It will be particularly important to make well-founded, information-based decisions in the event of a financial recession as a consequence of the pandemic.  

As precautionary measures, we therefore propose the following:

• That helplines and chatlines contribute by reporting their statistics as an important early indicator of the need for support and any shifts in the same  
• That national key players get together and jointly define the types of statistics regarding children’s vulnerability to violence that should be followed up
• That these data are analysed by experts, taking known risk factors for violence into account
• That this assignment be given to the chosen official agency, such that it can begin as soon as possible.

Sweden as a society has been working with child protection issues since the early 1900s. There are reasons to believe that we have succeeded in building a system that can stand up well during the crisis. Forward-looking extra initiatives taken at an early stage of the pandemic by helplines, among others, may also have made a positive contribution to the system. It is also worth recognising the ability and expertise of all caregivers and those working with children, and the genuine willingness to help those in need of extra support. Our children, moreover, have demonstrated a fantastic ability to adapt, as well as wise behaviour of which we adults can be proud.

But violence against children continues, and the resilience of the social system should not be taken for granted. On the contrary, the current situation demands that data are followed up and analyses undertaken in a logical, scientific manner. This is important not least for forthcoming work on maintaining and strengthening protective social structures. It is also important for introducing appropriate reforms, and for making an informed allocation of resources.  

If Sweden succeeds in fending off an anticipated increase in violence against children during the initial phase of the crisis, this will be not just excellent news, but evidence that proactive preventive measures during a crisis pay off. It will be interesting to observe the extent to which keeping nursery schools and schools open may have been a crucial measure for child protection during the COVID-19 crisis. It would also support the claim from the Public Health Agency of Sweden during its press conferences: the complete public health situation is considered when taking decisions.

The issue of children’s vulnerability to violence is important to society: it should be constantly monitored and stand high on the agenda. In order to meet future challenges, current shortcomings in the availability and follow-up of reliable, knowledge-based data should be urgently addressed.  

Sources and more reading (links to Swedish web pages):

• Pressmeddelande från Bris.
• Pressmeddelande från Nationellt centrum för kvinnofrid.
• Nyhetsinslag från TV4.
• Brå-statistik, misshandel, mars 2020.
• Brå-statistik, anmälda brott, april 2020.

 
 

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