Child abuse visits to emergency room down — but injuries up, report says

Visits to the emergency room for cases of child abuse and neglect of children under 18 years of age dropped by 53% in mid-March compared to the same time frame in 2019, according to a new analysis by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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The sharp decline began just days after the federal government declared a national emergency due to Covid-19 and many communities locked down to contain the spread of the virus, according to the report published Thursday in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

The decline mirrored a similar drop in calls to child abuse and neglect hotlines during the spring, as stay-at-home orders and social distancing measures kept kids out of sight.

Despite the drop, the study found the number of abused children who required hospitalization remained the same as last year, “suggesting that injury severity did not decrease during the pandemic,” the CDC researchers said.

“If a child is really injured or the baby stops breathing due to a head injury, you can bet that parent is going to bring the child in or call 911,” said child abuse pediatrician Dr. Lori Frasier, who is division chief of child abuse pediatrics at Penn State Milton Hershey Children’s Hospital.

What appears to be good news — a decline in child abuse emergency room visits — might instead be families failing to bring in children with less significant injuries, said child abuse pediatrician Dr. Robert Sege, who directs the Center for Community-Engaged Medicine at Tufts Children’s Hospital in Boston.

“Most child abuse is caused by neglect, and physical abuse doesn’t always cause a kind of serious injury that requires hospitalization,” said Sege, who is also a member of the child protection program at Tufts Children’s Hospital.


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