Child protection in the time of Covid-19: what we know and what we can do

Every year when school resumes after summer vacation, child welfare agencies brace themselves for an onslaught of reports as teachers see children after the entire summer and flood hotlines with reports of suspected abuse or neglect.  Earlier in the year, many officials and advocates expressed concern that this fall would see any even greater surge of calls than usual and that child welfare agencies would be overwhelmed. But as more and more schools and systems opted for a virtual opening this year, policymakers and advocates began to worry about the opposite problem–a continued dearth of reports to child abuse hotlines and a continued fear that children are suffering unseen.

A chorus of media reports from all over the country last spring documented drastic drops in calls to child abuse hotlines following school closures due to the coronavirus pandemic. As Child Welfare Monitor reported, almost every state reported declines in hotline calls last spring, with calls dropping often by half and sometimes by as much as 70 percent since schools shut their doors. A survey of children’s advocacy centers, which work with victims of physical and sexual abuse nationwide, found a 21 percent drop in the number of children served in January through June of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019; the drop would probably be much greater if only March through June were considered.

The loss of reports from schools was the primary explanation for the drops in reports of child maltreatment. And indeed the shift to online education delivered a double-whammy to any attempts at child protection. For children who did attend virtually, it was harder for teacher to see signs of trouble, like bruises or hunger. And many students who did did not show up for virtual education regularly or at all. The New York Times heard from many teachers around the country that fewer than half of their students were participating in online education. The School Superintendent in Los Angeles has reported that only 60 percent of students participated daily in online learning last spring. A child’s failure to participate may reflect the lack of a dedicated computer or internet access, difficulties in accessing platforms, a child too busy watching siblings or even working, or lack of engagement in virtual education.  Whatever the explanation for their absence, these children were not being seen by teachers, counselors or other school staff, often the ones who notice red flags. Other reporters, like doctors and extended family members, were also less likely to see children under the Covid-19 quarantine. 

More detailed data from Allegheny County Pennsylvania and two Colorado counties (shared in a webinar from Mathematica Policy Research) and from Maine (shared in a Child Welfare League of America webinar) shed some light on changes in reporting trends in the last school year and what they might mean.  The number of calls to child abuse hotlines (also called reports or referrals), as compared to the previous year, fell dramatically in all three states. The decline in reports was especially marked among teachers and other school staff such as counselors. In all the jurisdictions  the lower-risk referrals tended to drop off the most. In the data for Colorado and Allegheny County, where predictive risk modeling is used to screen hotline calls,  the average risk scores of the children being referred rose, suggesting that the lower-risk referrals tended to drop off more than the higher risk referrals. Maine officials found that reports were generally more severe and that they were getting fewer reports that were screened out as inappropriate or because there were multiple reports from the same family. Participants in both webinars suggested that in normal times schools make too many unnecessary reports for minor issues, and that many of these reports were being suppressed by the school closures.

It is encouraging that less serious referrals are more likely to be dropped than more serious ones, but it is equally clear that higher-risk referrals are being lost as well. Another important indicator is the percentage of referrals that result in a substantiation–or a finding that abuse or neglect has occurred. If the missing referrals were mainly frivolous,  we would expect a big increase in the percentage of reports that was substantiated. That did not occur in at least one state–Michigan–spurring its child welfare director to design an initiative discussed below. Unfortunately, substantiation data on a national level for last spring will not be available for another year from the federal government. 

At the same time that reports dropped, many child advocates have expressed fear that child maltreatment has actually increased. Based on past research, family violence increases in times of natural or economic disasters, probably in large part due to parental stress. In addition to the stress imposed by job loss and health concerns, parents who are cooped up in close quarters for months with their children may be more prone to respond with violence. And parents who need to work despite school closures may leave their children uncared for or with caregivers who are unprepared.

Despite these reasons to suspect that child maltreatment may be increasing, we do not have any national data to confirm or deny it. Data from individual hospitals in various locations around the country has been cited to demonstrate that cases of severe child abuse are increasing. Hospitals around the country have reported increases in serious injuries and even deaths compared to previous years. Reports of such excessive child abuse injuries and deaths have come from hospitals in Fort Worth, Texas, Orlando, Florida, Colorado Springs, Colorado, Washington, DC, and Pennsylvania. But without systematic data from hospitals, we really cannot know if this represents a national trend.

Last Spring, child advocates worried about the unseen children who would have to wait until schools reopened after the summer to have their situation discovered. But as more and more districts abandoned plans to open school buildings, it became clear that the anticipated onslaught of hotline calls would not occur in these jurisdictions. What can be done to ensure that children are safe? Several different approaches have been tried or suggested.

Public awareness campaigns: Some jurisdictions have instituted publicity campaigns encouraging members of the community to  report child abuse and neglect. For example,  the New Jersey Department of Children and Families launched a ‘Social Distancing Shouldn’t Mean Social Isolation’ campaign to raise awareness about child abuse, domestic violence and other dangers facing residents while homebound. It include a flyer about warning signs of child abuse as well as a more general resource that includes telephone numbers for the child abuse, domestic violence, mental health, and other hotlines. In a Call to Action for State Governors, CHILD USA, a national think tank focused on child protection, suggests that Governors should add to all their COVID updates a reference to the need for all adults to be alert for signs of abuse and neglect, along with how to reach the child abuse hotline.

Providing new guidance to traditional reporters: Some agencies have created new resources to share with educators and other traditional reporters of child abuse and neglect.  Maine issued guidance for educators, medical personnel, and community members to help them identify warning signs of child abuse and neglect in a time of virtual education.  CHILD USA released a useful list of Tips for Teachers on Child Welfare and Online Safety during COVID-19 which suggests questions for teachers to ask that are targeted at elementary, middle and high school students. The questions focus on food, physical safety and online safety. The document also includes tips on what to look for in the home environment as perceived through a computer screen. The Zero Abuse Project has published Responding to Child Abuse During a Pandemic: 25 Tips for MDT’s, which provides tips that might be useful for child welfare agencies as well. The authors included some valuable advice, such as a reminder to teachers that abuse has been shown to increase after a child receives a bad report card. They suggest that teachers. contact parents in advance of giving out a bad grade, promise to follow up (with the hope of defusing any violence) and call authorities if parents indicate a plan to punish the child physically,.

Reaching Out to Nontraditional Reporters: Some child advocates like family violence researcher Andrew Campbell have urged states to reach out to nontraditional reporters, such as postal workers, garbage collectors, and home repair agencies, who are continuing to see children as they move through homes and neighborhoods. A simple postcard listing the warning signs of child maltreatment and the phone number of the child abuse hotline could be distributed to businesses and agencies employing such workers. Animal protection agencies are another potential community partner for child welfare agencies, as Campbell also suggests. Animal control officers could be trained and enlisted to check up on the wellbeing of humans as well as animals in homes where animal abuse has been reported.

School Based Approaches: Schools have a critical role to play in ensuring that children can be protected in a time of virtual schooling. Districts must make sure that all students have access to a computer and high-speed internet service. It is critical that they adopt a policy of checking in with all students they have not been able to reach for a specified period of time, whether a day or a week.  Clearly this is easier said than done in schools serving largely disadvantaged populations. Media outlets have reported on the herculean efforts of dedicated school staff who have spent months trying to locate students who were missing from virtual education. Schools can also provide training to their teachers in how to spot red flags in virtual meetings, as Pueblo County Colorado has done. Schools should also consider adding to their virtual platforms an option for children to indicate that they are in trouble at home and need help. 

Reaching out to at-risk families known to the system: Noticing the precipitous fall in calls to the hotline without a corresponding rise in substantiation rates, Michigan’s child welfare director JooYeun Chang feared  that some children in need were “simply invisible,” as she explained to the editor of The Imprint. Before the pandemic arrived, the agency had commissioned an assessment from Chapin-Hall, a child welfare think-tank, which had identified 14,000 families that had been involved with the agency and had a high risk of children entering foster care without receiving additional preventive services. About 1,000 child protection workers freed up by the decline in hotline calls were assigned to reach out to these families to find out if they needed any type of assistance. Data provided to Child Welfare Monitor indicate that workers spoke with 8,267 of the 14,162 families on the list, and 80 percent of the families received a text, email, or mailing. Workers provided general support, information and referrals. Many parents expressed great appreciation for the calls; some conversations lasted 45 to 90 minutes. One worker was able to contact a cash assistance worker and rectify the erroneous closing of a case, another provided referrals to a father struggling with physical and mental health problems who thanked the worker several times just for listening. The agency is now reaching out to another 10,000 families that were investigated since the Covid-19 shutdowns began.

Inspired by Michigan, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania DHS is using staff and community partners to connect with higher-risk families involved in child welfare cases that closed six months earlier, to check in and find out whether they need help with food, housing or other services. Checking in with families to offer assistance is not designed to identify ongoing abuse or neglect. However, it may reduce the probability of child maltreatment recurrence by helping families meet concrete needs for food, clothing and shelter and even by offering them a friendly ear and reducing their social isolation.

Investing in Prevention: Interest in preventing child maltreatment before it occurs as was already growing before the Covid-19 pandemic. The drop in CPS reports under virtual schooling has led to even more interest in prevention.  Particularly relevant are secondary prevention approaches, which target families that are at risk of child maltreatment. Michigan DHHS under Jooyeun Chang is working on a new pilot that will be run by a nonprofit in two of the five Detroit zip codes from which the bulk of Detroit’s foster youth were removed. The program will target 400 families (chosen based on the previous calls), who will each receive a peer counselor with similar “lived experience” and a benefits navigator, who will connect the family to needed resources in the community. Combining peer counseling and benefits navigation is an innovative approach that may enhance the value of each of these components when provided together. In addition to the peer navigators, group activities will provide needed information and help participants build their social networks.

The Allegheny County (Pennsylvania) Department of Human Services (DHS) is launching the Hello Baby prevention program in partnership with local Healthy Start and Family Centers. The program, which is voluntary and not affiliated with child protective services, is an interesting hybrid of universal and targeted prevention. It will be offered to all families with a new baby but will offer three levels of services to families depending on how they score based on a predictive risk model using integrated data from multiple sources. The families with the most profound needs will be offered intensive services through Healthy Start Pittsburgh while others will be welcomed to their neighborhood Family Center and/or offered a variety of web-based and “warmline” supports and resources. While the program has not yet launched officially, DHS has soft-launched in some communities with a high density of vulnerable families.

The approaches outlined above fall into two broad categories: initiatives to enhance detection and reporting of child abuse and neglect and those designed to prevent it. These approaches are often supported by different groups in the child welfare space. However, both approaches are valid and important. We cannot go back in time and prevent the abuse and neglect that are already occurring, so we must have a robust system of reporting and investigation to find the children who need protection. On the other hand, to the extent that we can prevent future abuse and neglect before it starts, the benefits would be enormous.

 

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