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CBC – Dramatic spike in calls to Kids Help Phone in N.L. during pandemic (Ariana Kelland)

Grief and isolation make up majority of conversation. But Bev Moore Davis says so much is unreported.

Kids Help Phone has seen a surge in calls and texts from young people needing someone to talk to during the COVID-19 pandemic, and though not unexpected, child advocates say many children fear coming forward.

The organization provides free confidential online and telephone counselling, and says it saw a 350 per cent spike in service usage in mid- to late March. Even as restrictions begin to lift across Canada, the help line is still seeing 112 per cent more calls and texts than this time last year.

“Especially here in Newfoundland Labrador, two of the still most frequently discussed topics with us as of last week are grief and isolation. Certainly, the isolation comes into play with our social distancing, the loss of networks through school, friends and family,” said Emily Cardwell, manager of Kids Help Phone in Newfoundland and Labrador.

“We’ve had a couple incidences that resulted in conversations of grief — what happened in St. Lawrence and the tragedy in Nova Scotia hits home for the Atlantic provinces.”

Kids Help Phone partnered with Wellness Together Canada to provide services to adults, too, but Cardwell says the statistics they have only reflect calls and texts from children.

Staff and volunteers have also noted an increase in children and teens from Newfoundland and Labrador discussing self-harm and suicidal thoughts.

In a Kids Help Phone survey, 77 per cent of respondents said they wouldn’t speak with anyone other than the hotline about how they’re feeling.

Children trapped with abusers

That hesitation to come forward doesn’t come as a shock to Bev Moore-Davis, who survived child abuse and went on to create the Miles for Smiles Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to preventing abuse.

Her heart sank when she heard children would be pulled out of school, and away from their support systems, during the pandemic. Moore-Davis knew what it would mean for children in volatile homes.

“That was a very overwhelming and scary thought … just to think of children who are now trapped with their abusers,” said Moore-Davis.

“With school being a safe haven for many children, they no longer have that and that trusted adult they could rely on or speak with if they need to.”

Kids Help Phone did note an increase in calls and texts in Newfoundland and Labrador reporting emotional and sexual abuse. However, the surge in those types of calls wasn’t as high as in other provinces.

Moore-Davis noted the number of calls does not equal the number of abused children, and victims of abuse are often adults before they disclose what happened to them.

“We’ve heard from some children directly that they live in fear, they don’t want to be taken by CSSD [Department of Children, Seniors and Social Development] and they know some family or friends who have had unfortunately unpleasant experiences,” Moore-Davis said.

She said trust is an issue, because one case worker is assigned to a family, not to a child. Moore-Davis said children can fear confiding in a social worker who is also in contact with their parents.

During the pandemic, Moore-Davis was disappointed by a lack of public dialogue on what effect the restrictions were having on children, and took it upon herself to give children a voice.

“I didn’t feel like anyone was doing anything. I was disappointed that I wasn’t seeing anything from government proactively speaking about children being home potentially with abusers.”

The Miles for Smiles Foundation released a video in May as a way to educate the public and remind kids that they’re not alone.

Both Cardwell and Moore-Davis said the pandemic has shown how crucial a role adults play in helping children navigate stressful, and in some cases abusive, situations.

According to the provincial government, between 2006 and 2012 more than 10,000 violent crimes were reported against children under 18.

“They are very intuitive about what’s happening around them. They are fully aware of what’s happening in the news when it comes to the virus, of the measures we’re taking to stay safe and they share our stress and anxiety when they look at those things,” Cardwell said.

“It’s important to have those open conversations with the young people in our lives and encourage them to reach out for help should they need it.”

If an adult is the problem for children, Moore-Davis said it’s incumbent on everyone in society to report signs of abuse.

Ariana Kelland

CBC Newfoundland and Labrador