In the time it took you to read this story’s headline, your child could have gotten into an accident that required a trip to the emergency room — and, odds are, someone else’s child did.
Since the beginning of the year, Children’s Hospital Colorado in Colorado Springs has seen a 118% increase in the number of trauma cases in its ER.
Most of the injuries are from accidents, such as falls or bike wrecks. But the hospital’s emergency department also has seen a disturbing rise in the number of children with “non-accidental trauma,” or injuries caused by abuse.
“We are seeing a higher number of traumas in general, but kids aren’t in organized sports. They're not away in school five days a week. So what we are seeing is more injuries at home … accidental and non-accidental trauma,” said Dr. Michael DiStefano, an ER physician and the hospital’s chief medical officer.
Emergency department workers and pediatricians expect to see a rise in childhood injuries when the weather warms and school lets out. But with in-person classes canceled since mid-March, and parents dealing with a host of new pressures and challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the season of summer trauma has gotten an early start.
“I think it’s all secondary to where we are as a society right now, the increase in social distancing, the stress, the kids being out of school and home 24/7, it has had an effect on parents,” DiStefano said.
Between January and April, Children’s ER saw a three-fold increase in non-accidental trauma injuries. DiStefano said what he’s seeing may bear out concerns that a steep drop in calls to the state’s child abuse hotline in the weeks after in-person classes were suspended is far from good news.
Teachers aren’t just educators and kids’ full-time weekday supervisors some 10 months out of the year, they’re also “mandatory reporters,” legally required to be vigilant and report any suspicions that a student may be suffering abuse outside school grounds. Their reports can cue intervention that keeps a situation from escalating.
“Some of those early warning signs and indicators aren’t being seen, so that we can step in and help out the child and the family,” said DiStefano, who began to notice more “severe and frequent” cases of child abuse several weeks after schools closed. "What we're seeing in the ER is probably just the tip of the iceberg."
In cases of suspected non-accidental trauma, medical teams at Children’s work closely with clinical social workers who handle crisis intervention and serve as a bridge to community resources and services.
Simply getting out information — about where to get help that can allay crises, and how to keep kids safe — is a struggle in an era of shutdowns and social distancing.
DiStefano said his department is fielding more questions about how and where to get help, as parents struggle to access necessities in the wake of wide-ranging closures and cutbacks. Ecumenical Social Ministries, downtown Colorado Springs’ largest and oldest resource for homeless and at-risk families, which for years ran the city’s largest food pantry, suspended operations in March. Two weeks ago, its board announced the closure would be permanent.
“The first couple weeks (of the shutdown), everyone still had paychecks, they still had a job, and as this has progressed, the likelihood of being furloughed or laid off increased, so those stressors for families have increased,” said DiStefano. “And if a child is in a very stressful environment, whether it's financial, food insecurities or other stressors, that increases the likelihood of being a victim of non-accidental trauma.”
Such factors can also lead to increased risks of accidental childhood injuries, which represent the majority of cases being seen in Children’s ER.
These include injuries suffered in falls in the home or yard, collision and “double-bouncing” on trampolines, and tumbles from bikes, skateboards and scooters that might have required only a Band-Aid had the child been wearing the proper protective gear. Sixty-four percent of the hospital’s bike injury cases involved kids not wearing helmets.
Not only are there more of these accidents, the injuries coming through the doors are “more extreme,” said Amanda Abramczyk-Thill, coordinator of Safe Kids Colorado Springs, a Children’s Hospital-led initiative that hosts car-seat checkups, safety workshops and sports clinics aimed at helping parents and caregivers prevent childhood injuries.
“We’re just seeing more injuries that are more severe, and that really could have been prevented,” she said.
That, too, may be an outcome of pandemic times.
“Parents having to work from home, it might seem like they’re present and able to work at home and keep an eye on their kids, too, but it’s challenging,” she said. “And as children transition more outside, there will continue to be hazards in the home as well. Falling down the stairs is something we see often. Falls out of windows. Falls off furniture. Button batteries swallowed. As it warms up, you’re still going to have those home risks.”
And remember: Normal summer risks remain, even in an abnormal summer.
“As playgrounds open, as some camps open, as the weather warms up — not even necessarily COVID-19 related — you’re going to see some of those increased hazards,” said Abramczyk-Thill. “So supervise your child, make sure they wear a helmet, but also educate your child. Have a conversation with them about what it means to have a safe environment."
Because bad things can happen when you’re not paying attention.