The Intersection

State Responses to Child Neglect and Abuse During the Pandemic

August 28, 2021

The Challenge 

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought challenges to child well-being and safety, among them being the rise in child abuse and neglect. As stated in the Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA)(42 U.S.C.A. § 5106g), amended by the CAPTA Reauthorization Act of 2010, child abuse and neglect, at a minimum, is “any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker, which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation; or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.”  

Even if incidences of child abuse and neglect are short-lived, the effects of such incidences are not. Children who experience Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) often go on to suffer short- and long-term physical, psychological, behavioral, and societal consequences, even years after the abuse ends. This impact can even span generations if the victim is unable to seek treatment and prevent the cycle from repeating with their own children.  

The ongoing stressors of the pandemic alone have created many mental and emotional issues for students. Extended time in an abusive environment that many students have had to endure over the past year is likely to have a plethora of long-term negative consequences for children and adolescents. As a result, schools will need to address this now and into the future.

States Should Anticipate a Rise in Abuse and Neglect Reporting

At the beginning of the pandemic, child safety advocates warned about many child abuse incidents going unreported due to continued remote learning, since teachers often flag signs of child abuse through their in-person contact with students. In the initial stages of lockdowns, Connecticut, California, Michigan, Kentucky, New Hampshire, and Louisiana all reported double-digit percentage decreases in reports to child maltreatment hotlines. Additionally, reports declined by 50 percent in Ohio, declined by nearly one third in Maryland, and declined significantly in Montana and across New England. Policymakers, stakeholders, and law enforcement are aware that decreases in reporting do not reflect decreased cases of child abuse and neglect; in fact, it is often the opposite. In the summer of 2020, cases of child abuse rose in some parts of the United States, as did emergency department visits for children and adolescents.

Now, as the new school year begins and stress from the pandemic continues, experts are bracing for a rise in child abuse reports. In October 2020, the Fort Worth Independent School District gradually brought students back to in-person learning. The Alliance for Children, in Fort Worth, Texas, saw a spike in reports in April and May 2021 as Fort Worth Independent School District gradually brought students back to in-person learning starting in October 2020. Child welfare professionals anticipate that as school starts full-time in-person and kids build rapport with teachers, there will be an increase in cases again. It will be important for states and districts to make note of the trends and ensure schools and educators are equipped schools with the resources necessary for meeting students’ social-emotional needs. 

Policy Considerations 

Implement Early Childhood Home Visits

Policymakers should consider implementing home visits for children enrolled in early childhood education programs to help prevent and address child abuse and neglect in their communities. These programs provide support and link families to appropriate services. They also serve as an opportunity to educate parents on basic parenting skills by matching new families with trained providers, such as nurses, social workers, or parent educators. Early Head Start is one example of a prevention-focused program that has been shown to reduce child abuse while also offering family support services.  

Provide Training and Guidance on Abuse and Neglect

It will be important for educators to be able to identify signs of abuse and neglect as schools prepare for in-person instruction this fall. Districts should allocate funding to provide educators with appropriate training and guidance on the requirements of mandatory reporters. The Child Welfare Information Gateway (CWIG) provides information to educators on recognizing potential signs of abuse or neglect. Additionally, policymakers will need to provide training and guidance for teachers who continue teaching virtually. The Washington State Department of Health (WDOH) released updated guidance for educators on recognizing and reporting child abuse and neglect in online education settings along with other key considerations.  

Allocate Funding to Social Services and Supports

As students return to school in the fall, it will be important for state and district leaders to allocate funding that can bolster school-based social services. Consider increasing funding for student support staff positions, which will be particularly critical at the beginning of the school year, when more students are likely to need intensive social and emotional instruction, support, and intervention. State and district leaders could also identify funding streams that support the strategic placement of mental health services within schools. This strategy, known as co-location, greatly increases the likelihood that students will receive and complete counseling when they have mental health needs. State and district leaders can accomplish these goals by leveraging federal funding streams, such as Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) and Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) funds. 

Implement Trauma-Informed School Discipline Policies and Practices

School leaders should consider implementing trauma-informed school discipline policies this school year. Many schools across America currently utilize zero tolerance discipline policies, which often mandate predetermined consequences that are punitive and exclusionary, such as out-of-school suspension or expulsion. By sending children bearing abuse or neglect home, this policy could put them at risk for enduring more trauma. Trauma-informed policies have been shown to benefit all children and may be especially beneficial for students experiencing abuse or neglect. Discipline measures that are more appropriate for this student population could include in-school suspension or other school-sponsored activities. 

Provide Opportunities for Parental Education

Having lower levels of education among parents is a consistent risk factor for child abuse and neglect. Increasing parental education has the potential to reduce these risks and may also expand income-earning opportunities. Research shows that public schools using Title I funds to implement “Child Parent Centers”—which help parents earn GEDs, provide vocational training and link families to needed resources—reduced child abuse and neglect, placement in special education, juvenile delinquency, and incarceration. Parental education also increases high school completion and adult economic well-being. State legislatures can also set expectations for preventing high school students from dropping out, raise awareness about dropout problems, and support programs and school policies that aim to reduce dropout rates. The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) created a Task Force on School Dropout Prevention and Recovery in 2009 to develop policy recommendations for state legislatures aiming to lower rates of high school dropouts. 

Remain Vigilant of Statute Changes

Even amid a pandemic, state leaders must ensure that the current systems meant to report suspected abuse and neglect continue to function, while offering guidance to school districts, childcare facilities, and other critical partners to keep children safe. State leaders should remain up to date on state statutes related to child abuse and neglect. Districts will need to stay current on statute changes. When developing statute amendments, state leaders must also ensure that the updates are well-informed by districts and schools on the issues facing children who are abused or within the state, as each state faces unique challenges. The Child Welfare Information Gateway maintains a search engine with all state statutes on child abuse and neglect, child welfare, adoption, and more. 

Additional Resources 

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