Social workers are urging the public to watch for signs of child abuse and neglect in their community, as vulnerable children are told to stay at home with their parents during the COVID-19 crisis.
With children out of school for an indefinite period of time, those who are dealing with abuse at home have lost a place they can go to escape, according to Sylvie LeBlanc, a youth social worker at Dieppe's Boreal Centre.
"For a lot of people, when we think of home, it's supposed to be a safe place," said LeBlanc, who offers therapy to children who've been physically, sexually or emotionally abused.
"But for these type of kids, it's not a safe place. Being at home right now, it's probably one of their worst nightmares."
Missing school also means that teachers and guidance counsellors — a major source of referrals to child protection — won't be able to see vulnerable children every day and monitor how they're doing.
That leaves more responsibility in the hands of community members, whether it's friends, family or neighbours, to call child protection officials if they think a child is in danger, LeBlanc said.
'It's causing a lot of fear'
In addition to missing school, many children are feeling extra anxiety due to COVID-19, according to LeBlanc.
She worries the crisis and the isolation could take its toll on the children she helps, triggering severe mental health issues.
LeBlanc fears they could face "complex trauma" if they're forced to stay in a violent environment for a long period of time.
"They're dealing with the anxiety, with the violence that they have to deal with at home, so you add this, an extra anxiety, it's definitely not helping the state of their mental health," she said.
"It's causing a lot of fear, which is activating their nervous system."
While LeBlanc and other staff at the Boreal Centre are working from home, she said they're still focused on making sure children have what they need during the crisis.
She is still offering therapy services, but now meeting with children over the phone or by video. So far, she has been able to contact all of the children who receive her services.
"We're just trying to make due with what we have."
LeBlanc said children who feel anxious can also reach out to Kids Help Phone, which has seen an increase in calls from young people about COVID-19.
Some child protection staff deemed essential
The provincial government has designated some social workers as "essential and critical," which means they can still do home visits and intervene when necessary, according to Miguel LeBlanc, executive director of the New Brunswick Association of Social Workers.
"I think the biggest concern that our members are expressing to me at this time is the concern that not everything is being reported to the Department of Social Development in terms of potential child protection cases or adult protection," Miguel LeBlanc said.
He also encouraged people to call child protection officials if they believe a child is being abused or neglected.
Like Sylvie LeBlanc, he also worries that children could be at increased risk with the stress of COVID-19.
"Sometimes when we have this level of anxiety and uncertainty, it can increase potential rates of violence and abuse in some cases," he said.
Once a complaint is made, child welfare staff will investigate.
Child and youth advocate Norm Bossé said his office is also aware of "the increased possibility of abuse."
He said they are running a virtual office and can still respond to calls from people who are unable to report a case of neglect or abuse to the Department of Social Development, as well as people who require advocacy. They can do that online or by calling 1-888-465-1100.
Technology for child protection workers improved
"The department has been very clear that members are only to go out on urgent and serious matters," said Stephen Drost, who represents child protection workers as president of CUPE Local 1418.
"They have a way of triaging that particular issue."
Staff who have to go into offices are practicing social distancing. For those that need to visit homes in urgent cases, Drost is looking into whether all social workers have personal protective gear. Some areas have better access to protective supplies than others, he said.
"I know there's a shortage, but we're still advocating that if our members are having to go out, they do require proper protection gear to do that."
Others who don't need to be in the office are working from home. In the past, that might have been difficult for child protection staff to do.
A review of the province's child welfare system, released last year, found that child protection workers lacked basic technological support, such as cell phones and laptops.
Consultant George Savoury found that social workers were sharing several cell phones without data plans, which made it difficult for them to do their jobs in the field.
"There was a major distribution of cell phones here last year for the essential workers," Drost said.
"As well, I do know that quite a few people that have gone home, they can actually work from their cell phones because we're set up with data now."
Anyone who suspects a child is being abused or neglected can report it by calling 1-888-99-ABUSE (1-888-992-2873).