MONTREAL -- Already vulnerable families were hit the hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic and its socio-economic consequences are likely to be felt for years to come, according to the Observatoire des tout-petits, which fears this repercussion on children in particular: abuse.

The Observatoire, whose mission is to promote the development of young children in Quebec, unveiled Tuesday a comprehensive report on the impact of public policies in the lives of kids under five years old to help prevent this abuse.

When the Observatoire's experts began work two years ago on this major -- and first -- portrait of Quebec's policies in favour of young children and their families, they could not have imagined that the pandemic would weaken society's gains.

"However, the pandemic has made Quebecers realize how valuable municipal, provincial and federal public policies are," said Fannie Dagenais, the Observatoire's executive director.

"The pandemic has caused many difficulties for parents," said Dr. Marie-France Raynault, a physician specializing in preventive medicine and public health, who was a major contributor to the report by the Observatoire, a project of the Lucie and André Chagnon Foundation.

She points out that the stressors that affect parents and put children at risk of neglect and abuse have been exacerbated by the health crisis since March 2020.

Dr. Raynault, also a professor emeritus in the Department of Social and Preventive Medicine at the Universite de Montreal, details some of the causes of this increased stress: job losses and skyrocketing rents, which have plunged families into financial insecurity.

The public health measures to prevent the spread of the virus has left many families without support, such as the option of grandparents to babysit, preventing them from offering any respite.

The confinement and constant presence of family members in the home has increased tension and conflict, including making children witnesses to domestic violence.

"This can be expected to have an impact on the development of children," said Dr. Raynault.

And when parents are under a lot of stress, they are less available for the kids, and the constant pressure can also lead to violence.

Another casualty of the pandemic has been the mental health of Quebecers: increased anxiety and depression among parents are also risk factors for abuse. Beyond violence, Dr. Raynault points out that abuse also manifests itself through neglect, non-stimulation and daily abandonment of children.

The drop in the number of reports to the DPJ during the year 2020 has highlighted a reality, said Dr. Raynault: with the closing of schools and daycare services, "we have deprived ourselves of an important protection mechanism. This was the case because children were less exposed to the outside world," said Dagenais. Neglect and abuse were less "visible."

The safety net was undermined, she added.


There are several public policies in Quebec that support young children, according to the experts consulted by the Observatoire.

The list is long, but Dr. Raynault first cites the CPEs (Centres de la petite enfance), which "have proven their worth" and reduce developmental inequalities among children. "It lasts for years," she said, adding that it allows women to integrate into the labour market. And this service has also allowed many families to get out of poverty: with two salaries, the family's income is higher, according to Dagenais. 

Dagenais also highlights the contribution of the AccèsLogis program, which provides social housing for disadvantaged families. If a smaller proportion of the salary is used to pay the rent, there is more money to adequately feed the children, she gives as an example, adding that the waiting lists remain "impressive."

All the family-work balance policies also contribute to the well-being of toddlers by reducing the stress of parents. In addition, Quebec's parental leave system has been a vehicle for change, according to Dagenais: in 1995, when paternity leave did not yet exist, 4.2 per cent of fathers used a portion of parental leave, whereas in 2017, 80 per cent of fathers took it.

Despite the presence of public policies, a problem remains, according to the director of the Observatoire: the barriers that reduce access to services offered. She insists that these barriers must be broken down for the well-being of children under age five.

For example, it is notably more difficult for immigrants, First Nations members and very poor families to find services for their toddlers, mainly because of the language barrier. Parents of children with special needs may also have long waits for appointments with specialists.

In some neighbourhoods, including the most economically disadvantaged, there are few CPEs when children from disadvantaged families could greatly benefit from them.

"Experts predict that the socio-economic consequences of the crisis will be felt well beyond the vaccine, so now, and in the coming years, it will be really important to maintain public policies and ensure that they meet the needs of the population and that they are adapted and optimized," Dagenais said.

-- This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 27, 2021.