May 6, 2020
Updated: September 14, 2020
School closures and stay at home orders have brought many new challenges to child well-being. Among them, reports of child abuse and neglect are down significantly across the country – including a nearly 50 percent decline in Ohio, a drop of nearly a third in Maryland, similarly concerning declines across New England, and a significant drop in Montana. These numbers are alarming; rather than representing actual declines in abuse and neglect, they likely reflect a severe drop in identification and reporting.
Economic recessions and other stress-inducing events like the current pandemic tend to lead to an increase in child abuse and neglect. After the Great Recession, for example, a study of 9-year-old children and their families found that, for study participants, the economic stress, job loss, and home foreclosures were linked to parenting behaviors that are associated with Child Protective Services being called. Similarly, child neglect cases continued to increase following the 1990 recession, one that lasted eight months. These spikes were seen even after the economy had begun to turn around.
Though we don’t know for certain if the same is occurring, we do see some stories from hospitals reporting an increase of hospitalization due to abuse, some of the cases being fatal. They are vastly different than what we are experiencing now because many schools, childcare facilities, and businesses are still closed and there aren’t as many people able to report suspected abuse.
Teachers and child care workers play a significant role in helping to identify children who may be experiencing abuse or neglect. As mandatory reporters in all states, teachers, and child care workers are often the first people outside of the family to notice mood or behavior changes that stem from abuse or neglect in the home. Many experts in the field are concerned that increases in child abuse could be occurring now that schools and businesses have shuttered, but with fewer people able to report suspected abuse, it will be hard to identify children in need. Since most schools were closed through the end of last school year, state leaders must prioritize vulnerable children during this time of uncertainty and beyond.
The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) has experienced a decrease in calls to their Child Abuse Hotline. Sheila Hogan, Director of Montana’s DPHHS, says that the average number of weekly calls has declined by about 45% since schools for the 2019-2020 school year closed on March 15th. Teachers and staff who are mandatory reporters are the majority of callers to the state’s hotline, but because of school closures, they’re unable to make sound reports.
States, districts, and schools are scrambling to find solutions to the under-reporting of child abuse and neglect. Existing systems heavily rely on the in-person institutions that children typically interact with daily – especially schools. Unfortunately, the unprecedented school closures that we are facing now have left practitioners and policymakers with no proven ways to address the widespread under-reporting. However, state and local leaders are trying new approaches; below are examples of state and local actions to address the decrease in reporting calls, connect vulnerable families with appropriate resources, and hopefully prevent abuse or neglect.
After recognizing the decrease in reporting, Missouri KidsFirst released a set of resources for all community members to use in spotting suspected child abuse. The #Essential4Kids campaign provides guidance to the community-at-large on what to look for and asks that if a community member suspects a child is being abused, to report it using the state’s reporting hotline. It emphasizes that reporting suspicions is not an accusation and could potentially help families acquire resources needed during this time or stop a child from being abused.
In Montana, the Great Falls Public Schools is using virtual interactions with children and families to keep in touch. During these touchpoints, teachers have been encouraged to be more attentive to any changes in behavior, and ultimately if they suspect abuse or neglect, they are asked to report it. The district has partnered with local agencies and nonprofits to help them connect vulnerable children and families with resources such as mental health therapy. The district is also scheduling home visits with children they haven’t been able to make consistent contact with, primarily to understand any needs the family has and to determine if any abuse or neglect is occurring.
In Los Angeles, the Sheriff’s Department, Special Victims Unit, and Department of Children and Family Services worked together to develop a plan to target vulnerable children. This collaborative model can ensure that multiple agencies are able to put forth a concerted effort in responding to suspected child abuse. These efforts hope to prevent abuse, encourage community efforts to report suspected abuse, and connect vulnerable families with resources during this difficult time.
As state leaders grapple with the many intricacies of policy responses to mitigate damage from the COVID-19 pandemic, they must ensure the systems in place to report suspected abuse and neglect continue to function, while offering guidance to school districts, child care facilities, and other critical partners to keep children safe. Some questions policymakers should consider are below.
Do you know of a promising practice to help identify child abuse and neglect cases? If so, please share with Patrick Sims at firstname.lastname@example.org so we can update this page.