By Beth Wechsler
AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio
As we enter the third month of the coronavirus pandemic, I keep thinking about the families I’ve known over my 40 years as a social worker in children’s services.
Social workers often provide services to children who are at-risk — the term we use for kids from difficult family and home backgrounds. The billionaire investor Warren Buffett refers to this as the “ovarian lottery ... the most important event in which you’ll ever participate.”
These are kids who, through no fault of their own, are more likely to fail in school, at work and in relationships, and are more vulnerable to substance abuse and the myriad problems that come with it.
Children’s services exist to give every chance possible to these children who fared poorly in the ovarian lottery. While success is difficult, decades of research and experience mean clinicians know a lot about what at-risk youth need to improve their chances at a life better than the one their circumstances of birth predicted. We know what circumstances — known in the field as resilience factors — are associated with a child having the resilience to come through a childhood that is being lived amid poverty, abuse, parental illness including addiction or neglect.
Here are some examples I’ve seen over and over in my career:
The little boy who lives with domestic violence, whose home is unsafe, is strengthened by having somewhere to go that is not dangerous and where an adult looks at him with some level of connection. It might be at the house of a friend whose mother is welcoming, the teacher who looks into each child’s face as he comes into her classroom, and finds a few minutes to sit with him if she feels uneasy about him. It might be the physical education teacher who says, “That-a-boy!” or a counselor who tries to understand why he has gotten into another scuffle at recess. It may also be the nurse who sees a bruise or that his hair is dirty, whoever picks up the phone on his behalf and files a “51A” with the state office whose job it is to assess child safety.
Sometimes, what makes a difference for these vulnerable children isn’t an adult at all. It’s another child or even a group of children.
Suffering at home
The biggest crisis I see in America right now is the one that’s happening to these children. Every resilience factor for at-risk kids involves connections with people outside the home. The strategies public officials are using to mitigate the pandemic make those connections impossible. Without access to friends and activities and responsible adults, the chances of success at-risk kids have plummet. And this interruption comes at a time when the stressors on families have dramatically increased. Shut away from school and peers, they are living with parents who have been laid off from jobs, often without even a $400 emergency buffer, in the company of alcohol sales that have increased 55%, according to Nielsen data.
Each day that this situation continues poses the risk of another traumatic experience for these young Americans. We see it in the fears their parents have: According to a Pew poll , low-income parents are more than twice as worried as high-income parents about the impact of school closings on their kids’ futures.
In the beginning of the pandemic, there was a temptation to say this was unfortunate but necessary — and that saving lives had to come first.
What complicates all this is that has more data come in, it’s become very clear whose lives we’re saving — and at whose expense. According to the latest CDC data through April 18, 24,555 Americans have died for reasons involving Covid-19. Of those, three were under age-14. By comparison, seventy-eight children under fourteen died of influenza-related illnesses, consistent with prior years. Regardless of what heart wrenching anecdotes on morning shows suggest, children are less vulnerable to Covid-19 than to any number of risks that we live our lives with little thought to.
Meanwhile, to pick just one example, between March 17th and April 13th, the Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth, Texas, has seen three children die of child abuse. Typically, the hospital sees one every two months, meaning it’s a 500% increase in child abuse deaths. In one month, as many children at one hospital died because of an increase in child abuse related to the lockdowns as have died nationally of the coronavirus. Headlines elsewhere are similar: In Massachusetts , reports of child abuse have fallen 60% since schools closed, at a time when child abuse is likely rising. Instead, vulnerable children are being locked at home without access to adults who might notice signs of abuse and neglect.
I devoted most of my adult life to working with at-risk children because I believe that children who didn’t win the ovarian lottery are the ones society has the strongest and clearest moral obligation to serve. The Covid-19 lockdowns undermine our ability to do that on a scale that has never been seen before, and all of us will pay the price for it. At-risk kids without access to resources become adults who require enormous resources and all the costs that come with crime, dysfunctional relationships and substance abuse.
I’m just a therapist and I don’t claim to have all the policy answers, but I am sure of this: A morality that calls for making cannon fodder of at-risk kids in a battle against a virus that doesn’t affect them is one that shouldn’t go unquestioned. And we should not delude ourselves: The current policies absolutely guarantee that a wildly disproportionate share of the price of the lockdowns will be paid by the most vulnerable kids. And unlike many adults who are worried about the virus and are choosing to take aggressive precautionary measures, which they could continue even if schools and some businesses reopened, six-year-olds have no self-help strategy for abusive and neglectful parents.
The priority as we look to reopen things should be getting resources to these kids — with a recognition that there is little we can do to reach these kids without reopening many of the things they use. Schools and summer programs should be reopened quickly — with teachers in at-risk populations told to work from home, and kids who live with people in at-risk populations told to continue with Zoom classes. Parents who are afraid shouldn’t be forced to send their kids to school, but public officials need to inform parents that their kids aren’t at risk from the virus. The data is clear on this.
I understand that total lockdowns impede the spread of a virus more than partial measures. No choices come without costs; lower speed limits reduce traffic fatalities, and banning cars would slow climate change. Decisions about tradeoffs are made on every issue — but on the coronavirus, it seems, there is a determination to do everything possible to stop one virus with no regard for anything else.
Covid-19 isn’t the only cause of human suffering in the world. The impact of extended lockdowns on at-risk kids will be paid by them, and by the society they live in, for the rest of their lives. The longer lockdowns continue, the higher the price will be. We owe them better.
Beth Wechsler, MSW, LICSW, is a psychotherapist in private practice on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Her experience with children includes developing “Counselors in the Classroom: Mainstream Intervention for High Risk Youth,” which was funded by the Massachusetts Governor’s Alliance Against Drugs. She serves as a social-work expert witness in cases involving children.