Avoiding the gulf: How “social distancing” has the potential to separate families more than six feet.

As the United States and other countries around the world race to delay the spread of the COVID-19 virus, Coloradans, like millions of others around the globe, have been required to engage in a relatively new practice called “social distancing.”

One must look no further than social media — where the hashtag, #StayAtHome, has been featured in millions of Facebook posts, tweets and Instagram messages. Everywhere we look there are reminders – even pleas – to stay home, stop the spread of COVID-19 and stay healthy. In a matter of weeks, our culture has shifted. We’ve acknowledged that separating from others – family, friends, support networks – is no longer a courtesy, but rather a life or death decision. We’ve been asked to make “social distancing” a part of our lives.

While the term “social distancing” was designed to encourage physical distancing between us, the words have the power to create emotional isolation, loneliness and even despair. For families and children who rely on supports and services typically provided outside the home, this imprecise term could stir disaster.

While “social distancing” requires that we keep six feet apart from one another physically, the words create an emotional gulf that threatens the stability of Colorado children and families. 

Now more than ever, parents and families need support. Parents are facing tremendous challenges including, financial instability, food insecurity, unemployment, lack of childcare, little or no healthcare, all while an insidious and dangerous virus lurks just outside their doorstep. Parents need to hear that while physical distance is critically important to the health of themselves and their families, they can — and should –seek social and emotional support.

During the past weeks, child protection professionals across the country have witnessed a sharp decline in the number of child abuse and neglect reports being filed across the country.

Every April, the child protection community comes together for Child Abuse Prevention Month to discuss how we can improve the services we’re providing families and decrease incidents of child abuse and neglect. This work has never been more important as the implementation of stay-at-home orders – while crucial for our health – have also placed some children in substantial risk.

Statistics show that, in Colorado alone, the child abuse hotline is receiving almost half as many calls as usual. The decline occurred immediately after schools closed and our mandatory reporters — teachers, coaches and childcare providers — were no longer able to see children and report their concerns to authorities about child safety. The concern expressed by many is that social isolation combined with increased family stress will lead to increased rates of child abuse and neglect.

So let’s look at our words. Now more than ever we need to remember to stay socially connected and physically distant from one another. The difference is critical so that our friends, neighbors and families will seek one another out and give and get the support they need during these difficult times. Words are powerful. Their meaning impactful. Words can provide the courage to press on, or be one more reason to give up. While we must physically distance ourselves from one another right now, we must work harder than ever to stay connected.