This blog is part of a series on the impact that COVID-19 has had on the child care industry and children and families in Onslow County
For some children, the last year has been an upheaval of social norms that will not be forgotten—but for others, the COVID-19 pandemic may qualify as an adverse childhood experience (ACE) and cause long-term impact on their brain development, social-emotional skills, and ability to thrive as an adult.
Adverse childhood experiences are amplified by many stressors that have been unleashed by the pandemic—including social isolation, job loss, school closures, food and housing insecurity, and sexual, physical, and emotional abuse and neglect. These forms of toxic stress due to increased family adversity can impair child brain development, particularly during the formative early 2,000 days of childhood.
Understanding Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)
The term ACEs comes from a landmark 1998 study from the CDC that connected childhood adversity to higher risk for poor physical, mental, behavioral, and social outcomes in life. ACEs can take on various forms, including verbal, physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, physical neglect, divorce and separation of parents, physical abuse of a parent, alcohol or drug abuse by a parent, mental illness of a parent, and incarceration of a parent.
ACEs do not impact all children and demographics equally. Nationally, 61 percent of Black non-Hispanic children and 51 percent of Hispanic children have experienced at least one ACE compared with 40 percent of white non-Hispanic children. Income also plays a role: Studies have suggested that low socioeconomic status paired with social isolation are both major risk factors for ACEs.
With the pandemic disproportionately affecting low-income and ethnic minority populations who are already at increased risk for ACE-impacted chronic conditions, it is likely that these children will face an even greater hurdle.
In North Carolina, 23.3 percent of children have one ACE and 23.6 percent have experienced two or more adverse childhood experiences. With COVID-19 as a significant source of stress for many children and families, these numbers are likely to increase.
Housing and Food Insecurity
While children are not at particularly high risk of contracting COVID-19, the pandemic has disrupted their lives and exacerbated specific challenges to their overall physical, mental, and emotional health. As the pandemic increases adversity at home, children are likely to be exposed to a wide range of parental anxieties—including poverty, food insecurity, housing insecurity, mental health challenges, substance abuse, and more.
In North Carolina as a whole, child poverty is an enormous problem: Nearly 1 million children live in poor or low-income homes and the state is ranked among the lowest in the nation for the ability of a child from the bottom 20 percent of the income bracket to reach the top 20 percent in adulthood. In Onslow County, the median household income is $50,278 and 12.5 percent of people live in poverty.
Food insecurity is also a challenge—particularly for children. According to a 2018-2019 report from the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, 20.3 percent of children under the age of 18 are food insecure in Onslow County and 26.6 percent of children receive free or reduced school meals.
Abuse and Neglect
During the COVID-19 crisis, reports of child abuse and neglect have dropped drastically—and while this might immediately appear to be a positive sign, many experts fear that incidents of abuse haven’t decreased at all; instead, experts believe that fewer cases of neglect and abuse are being caught and reported by early childhood care providers and teachers.
According to a brief from The Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action, child protection risks have been heightened dramatically due to the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 80 percent of child abuse and neglect is perpetrated by parents. And during the pandemic, an increasing number of children are spending time in social isolation with their families—all while entirely disconnected from other potential social supports, such as teachers, childhood educators, and friends.
At One Place, we are committed to preventing ACEs by increasing protective factors through training and education. This includes:
Visit our website for our upcoming training opportunities: https://www.oneplaceonslow.org/for-parents-and-early-educators/training-info-registration/#trainingcalendar
Additionally, North Carolina announced a Medicaid change that temporarily allows for virtual well-child visits for children under the age of 21 using telemedicine. Providers may also conduct maternal depression screenings for mothers of children up to age 24 months.
As part of North Carolina’s comprehensive 2030 strategy, A Path Toward Health, the state added a new health indicator to measure ACEs and improve child well-being. The goal of this is, by 2030, to reduce the number of children with two or more ACEs present by 25 percent.
Moving forward, it is vital that the public health response includes consideration for COVID-19 as an ACE. We must continue to develop tools and infrastructure to support children who have been adversely affected and connect them to the resources they need to thrive.