Child Maltreatment 2020: what did and didn’t happen in the first pandemic year

On January 21, 2022, the Children’s Bureau finally released its long awaited report, Child Maltreatment 2020, which contains data submitted by the states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Coming over a year after the end of the period covers, the report holds few surprises. As we already know from individual state reports, the pandemic resulted in plunging calls to child abuse hotlines and an attendant drop in the numbers of children who were investigated, found to be abused or neglected, receiving family preservation services or placed in foster care. Vast differences between states in these numbers continued to be present, reflecting differing policies, practices, and conditions. These differences remind us that the use of the terms “victimization” and “victim” in the report is deceptive; they describe the state’s finding that maltreatment has occurred – not the actual existence of maltreatment.

Large disparities between racial and ethnic groups in the rate at which children are found to be victims of maltreatment also continued to exist, with Native American and Alaskan Native children having the highest rates, followed by African American children. For child maltreatment fatalities, African-American children having by far the highest rate of all racial and ethnic groups, three times greater than that for White children. This staggering disparity in fatalities (a much clearer concept than “victimization”) suggests that those who blame racial disparities in child welfare system involvement on racism in the system may be missing the main point–the greater need for protection among Black and Native children.

Effects of Covid-19

Almost as soon as governors began issuing stay at home orders and schools closed in the wake of the pandemic, experts and advocates feared that the isolation of children from adults other than their caregivers would result in reductions in calls to child abuse hotlines and in turn investigations and protective interventions like family preservation services and foster care. Data coming directly from states has already confirmed these fears. And on November 19, the Children’s Bureau released the AFCARS Report for 2020, which showed that both entries to and exits from foster care decreased during the first year of the pandemic, but since entries fell more than exits, the total number of children in foster care fell by over four percent, the largest decrease in the past decade. (This report was discussed in my last commentary.)

The annual Child Maltreatment reports from the Children’s Bureau of the federal Administration on Children and Families summarize data from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS), which is a federal effort to collect data on child abuse and neglect that is mandated by the CAPTA amendments of 1988. Child Maltreatment 2020 provides the backdrop to the foster care declines documented by AFCARS by showing that the number of hotline calls, children receiving an investigation or alternative response, and children determined to be victims of abuse or neglect all dropped substantially in Federal Fiscal Year (FFY) 2020 relative to FFY 2019. Breaking down the data by quarter showed that these drops relative to the previous year occurred mainly during the second two quarters of the Fiscal Year (April through September 2020), after the pandemic shutdowns began. Exhibit S-1 from the report shows the declines in the rates of total referrals, screened-in referrals, children subject to an investigation or alternative response, and children determined to be victims of abuse or neglect between FFY 2016 and FFY 2020.

Source: Child Maltreatment 2020,


The word “referrals” in child welfare denotes calls to child maltreatment hotlines, as distinct from “reports,” which are referrals that are “screened-in” for investigation. There were a total of 3.925 million referrals involving 7.1 children in FY 2020, for a rate of 53.5 referrals per thousand children. This was a drop of 10.4 percent in the referral rate compared to FFY 2019, which is particularly significant given that the annual number of referrals had been increasing annually since FFY 2016. As in previous years, there were big differences across states: the number of referrals per 1,000 children ranged from a low of 19.1 in Hawaii to highs of 126.9 in Alaska and 137.7 in Vermont. These differences may reflect differing laws and attitudes toward maltreatment reporting in the respective states more than they reflect actual maltreatment rates.

Due to the pandemic, teachers lost their usual place as the source of the largest number of referrals: in 2020 legal and law enforcement personnel made 20.9 percent of referrals, with education personnel coming next (17.2 percent), followed by medical personnel (11.6 percent), social services personnel (10.5 percent), parents and other relatives (6.3 percent each) and smaller amounts from mental health personnel, friends and neighbors, anonymous sources, and others.

Nationally, 54 percent of referrals were “screened in” for investigation or assessment, and the remaining 46 percent were screened out as not meeting the state’s definition of abuse or neglect. There was no change in the screened-in percentage from FY 2019 but the number of screened-in referrals dropped by 10.5 percent from FY 2019 to FY 2020. Of the 47 states reporting screened-in and screened-out referrals, the percentage that were screened in ranged from 17.3 in South Dakota and 17.5 in Vermont (a low that may be related to that state’s very high referral rate) to 98.7 in Alabama.

Investigations and substantiations

The number of children receiving an investigation or alternative response in FFY 2020 was 3.145 million, which was about 46.7 per thousand children. The rate was a decrease of 9.5 percent from FFY 2019, mostly due to decreased activity in April through September. Out of these children, an estimated 618,000, or 8.4 per thousand children, were the subject of reports that were “substantiated” or “indicated,” which means that the agency determined the allegation of abuse or neglect to be true. ACF calls this the “victimization rate,” which is a deceptive term. An investigator’s decision about the truth of an allegation is based on limited information and with limited time, and evidence indicates that many referrals are unsubstantiated when maltreatment actually exists. Moreover, substantiation rates are dependent on state policies and practices, as described below. Because of the confusion caused by the term “victimization,” I will use the term “substantiation” instead.

The national child substantiation rate fell by 5.8 percent in 2020 due to reductions in maltreatment findings in the second half of the fiscal year, suggesting that the drop was mainly the result of the fall in referrals due to the pandemic. This decrease was only about half the magnitude of the 10.5 percent decrease in screened-in referrals, suggesting that a higher percentage of reports was substantiated in FY 2020 than in FFY 2019.* Part of the explanation for this lesser decrease in substantiations may be the reduced proportion of referrals from teachers, whose reports are more likely than others to be unsubstantiated. Many commentators argue this is because teachers often make calls to comply with the mandatory reporting requirement, rather due to genuine concern for a child’s safety. Whether or not this is true, the loss of reports from teachers doubtless meant the loss of serious referrals that would have been been substantiated, as the reduced substantiation rate suggest.

State substantiation rates ranged from a low of 1.9 per thousand children in New Jersey to a high of 19 per thousand in Maine. As the report explains, these rates are affected by state policies and practices, such as their definitions of abuse and neglect, their use of investigation versus alternative response, and the level of evidence they require to substantiate an allegation. Other factors not mentioned by the authors include differences in the messages coming from an agency’s leadership about the relative importance of child safety versus family preservation. Also not mentioned are variations in the use of kinship diversion, the practice of placing children with a relative without court involvement or case opening. If this happens before the investigation is completed, it may result in an “unsubstantiated” finding as the child is now considered safe with a family member. (In a previous commentary, I speculated that New Jersey’s extremely low “victimization” rate might be at least partially due to the practice of kinship diversion.)

Most states had a decrease in the their substantiation rates during FFY 2020, but a few showed little change and some, including Alaska, Arkansas, Illinois, and Maine, even had an increase despite the pandemic. In its commentary, Alaska cited a successful effort to eliminate backlogged investigations and Maine described an increase in reports, which may have been the consequence of several highly-publicized child deaths. North Carolina had a large increase from a very low substantiation rate in 2019 of 2.4 per thousand children to 9.7 in FY 2020 but was “not able” to submit commentary in time to appear in the report. Illinois reported an increase in substantiations due to large increases in the two pre-pandemic quarters but did not provide an explanation. It is worth noting that Arkansas and Illinois were two of only three states to report an increase in foster care entries during FFY 2020 – an increase which is probably related to the increased substantiation rates in those states.

Nationally, children younger than one had the highest substantiation rate at 25.1 per 1,000 children, and the rate decreased with age. Comparison to 2019 shows that the number of children aged eight to 12 who were found to be victims of maltreatment had the largest percentage decrease of 8.2 percent when compared to children aged under one, 1-5 and 13-17, presumably because reporting on this group is most likely to be affected by school closures. Next came children aged 1-5, with a 5.0 percent decrease in the number of substantiated victims, while children under one had a decrease of 3.9 percent. The number of substantiated victims aged 13-17 decreased about the same amount as the youngest group at 3.7 percent.** This is also not surprising because these older children are not dependent on teachers and care providers to report abuse or neglect concerns.

American Indian/Alaskan Native children had the highest substantiation rate of all racial/ethnic groups at 15.5 per thousand children in the population; African-American children had the second highest at 13.2 per thousand, followed by multiple race children at 10.3 per thousand, Pacific Islander children at 10.0 per thousand, Hispanic children at 7.8 per thousand, White non-Hispanic children at 7.0 per thousand, and 1.6 per thousand for Asian children. There is considerable controversy about the higher referral, substantiation, and foster care placement rates for African-American and Native American children. Many scholars and advocates attribute these disparities to racism among those who report alleged maltreatment and those who investigate the reports. Nevertheless, there is evidence from other sources that these disparities may reflect greater underlying maltreatment rates among these populations. The latter view is supported by the even greater racial difference in child maltreatment fatality rates, as described below.

While substantiation rates went down for almost all racial categories during the second half of FFY 2020, these rates actually increased for Native American and Alaskan Native children. Quarterly data reveals that, unlike all other groups, this group experienced an increase in substantiation in the April-June quarter of 2020 relative to that quarter of 2019. But there was a large decrease of 20.3 percent in the July-September quarter relative to FFY 2019. It is almost as if the effects of the pandemic appeared later for this population. Further inquiry is needed to understand what might have caused this anomalous result.

Nationally in FY 2020, three-quarters (76.1 percent) of children found to be maltreatment victims were found to be neglected, 16.5 percent physically abused, 9.4 percent sexually abused, 6.4 percent psychologically maltreated, 6.0 percent victims of an “other” type of maltreatment, and 0.2 percent victims of sex trafficking. A child can be found to be maltreated in more than one way, so the percentages add up to more than 100. The percentages were fairly similar in 2019.

Starting in FFY 2018, states were required to report on the number of infants born with prenatal exposure to drugs or alcohol. In 2020, 49 states reported that 42,821 infants were referred to CPS agencies for prenatal substance exposure. That was an increase over the 38,625 reported by 47 states in FFY 2019; this increase may reflect the addition of two states and an improvement in reporting by states as they phased it in. Many states are clearly not yet reporting all substance-exposed infants, with a large state like Florida reporting only nine substance-exposed infants in FFY 2020.

NCANDS collects data on caregiver risk factors, although these data may be incomplete as many risk factors may go undetected and not every state collects data on every risk factor. From the data available, domestic violence was the most common risk factor, with 37 states reporting 28.7% of the victims had a caregiver with this risk factor. Substance abuse was almost equally prevalent, with caregivers of 26.4 percent of the victims having this risk factor in 41 reporting states; alcohol abuse was reported as a factor for 15.8 percent of caregivers in 34 states; unfortunately mental illness was not included in the reported data. The prevalence of domestic violence as a risk factor confirms reports from around the country about the importance of this factor in families involved with child welfare. This data suggests that domestic violence services should be included in services for which reimbursement should be provided under the Family First Act.

Child Maltreatment 2020 contains estimates of child fatalities due to abuse and neglect from all states but Massachusetts, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. These jurisdictions reported a total of 1,750 fatalities, for a population rate of 2.38 per 100,000 children, compared to 1,825 or 2.50 per 100,000 children in FFY 2019. But to say that the maltreatment fatality rate went down in 2020 as compared to 2019 would be deceptive, because the fatalities counted in one year did not necessarily occur in that year. Rather, the authors indicate that “the child fatality count in this report reflects the federal fiscal year … in which the deaths are determined as due to maltreatment,” which may be different from the year the child actually died.” Such determinations may come a year or more after the fatality occurred. There is no evidence of a declining or increasing trend in the child maltreatment fatality rate based on data from 2016 through 2020 presented in the report; rather there are small annual fluctuations.

A second problem with the fatality estimates is that they are widely believed to be too low. One reason is that many states report only on fatalities that came to the attention of child protective services agencies. As the report’s authors point out, many child maltreatment fatalities do not become known to agencies when there are no siblings or the family was not involved with the child welfare agency. States are now required to consult certain sources (such as Vital Statistics agencies, medical examiners, and Child Fatality Review Teams), or to explain in their state plans why they are not using these sources. But for 2020, only 28 states reported on such additional fatalities, adding 233 fatalities to the total. And we cannot assume that even those states identified all of the child maltreatment fatalities that were known to other sources. Moreover some fatalities resulting from abuse or neglect are mistakenly labeled as due to accident, sudden infant death syndrome, or undetermined causes for lack of a comprehensive investigation.

As in the case of abuse and neglect in general, younger children are much more likely to die from child maltreatment according to NCANDS data: 68 percent of the fatalities were younger than three years old. As in the past, there were sharp demographic differences in the proportion of the population that was found to be the victim of a child maltreatment fatality. Black children died at a rate that was 3.1 times greater than the rate of White child fatalities and six times greater than the rate of Hispanic child fatalities. These differences cast doubt on the arguments that racial disparities in referrals, substantiations and foster care placements reflect racism in the child welfare system, since unlike substantiation, death is an unambiguous outcome. (It is true that racism could affect decisions about whether a death is attributable to maltreatment, but this unlikely to be a large effect). Looking back at Child Maltreatment reports since 2016 shows that Black child fatalities as a percent of the population increased in four out of the five years, and went up from 4.65 to 5.9 over the entire period, as shown in the second table below, so there is reason to fear that this year’s increase reflects a real trend. American-Indian and Alaskan Native children had the second-highest rate of maltreatment fatalities, followed by children of two or more races.

Source: Child Maltreatment 2020,

Fatalities per 100,000 children by Race and Ethnicity and Federal Fiscal Year

Race and Ethnicity20162017201820192020
American Indian/Alaska Native3.
Pacific Islander3.374.472.223.342.05
Two or more races2.972.453.503.073.27
Sources: Child Maltreatment 2016-2020,

NCANDS does not collect data on the cause or manner of a child’s death, but 73.7 percent of the children who died were found to have suffered neglect and 42.6 percent were found to be abused, either exclusively or in combination with other types of maltreatment. More than 80 percent of the perpetrators were parents. Anecdotal information and some research indicates that mothers’ boyfriends are disproportionately found to have perpetrated child abuse homicides, but NCANDS does not collect this information. Nor is NCANDS able to provide an estimate of how many child victims of maltreatment fatalities had prior CPS contact; some states are able to report on how many of them had prior family preservation or reunification services, but as the authors indicate, “the national percentage is sensitive to which states report data.”


Based on state data, the authors of Child Maltreatment estimated that about 1.1 million children received “postresponse” services, which include a wide variety of family preservation services and foster care. This was a decrease of 9.4 percent from the number receiving such services in 2019, with states attributing the decrease to the decline in referrals due to Covid-19. Nationally, based on the reporting states, 59.7 percent of children determined to be maltreatment victims and 27.1 percent of those not determined to be victims received postresponse services. Children who were not determined to be victims may receive post-response services after being assessed as at risk despite the inability to substantiate an allegation, or because their parents voluntarily accepted services. The percentage of such children who received post-response services varied greatly between states, from 2.2 percent in Colorado to 100 percent in Iowa. Such high percentages may reflect the inclusion of very short-term and “light-touch” services, such as the provision of referrals, gift cards for food or clothing, or bassinets for safe sleep.

Based on data provided by 49 states, the report indicates that 124,360 children determined to be victims of maltreatment (or 21.8 percent) were removed from their homes, along with 48,710 (or 1.8 percent) of children not determined to be victims, for a total of 173,079 children.*** The latter may have been removed because they were deemed to be in imminent danger despite the lack of substantiation; some may have been siblings of children for whom abuse or neglect was found that was serious enough to warrant removal of all children from the home.

The data available from some states show that many children found to be maltreatment victims had prior child welfare involvement: data from 30 states indicates that 13.9 percent of these children had received family preservation services in past five years and data from 39 states indicates that 4.9 percent were reunited with their families in the past five years. Of course these percentages do not include children that were the subject of reports, referrals or investigations, but not services, in the previous five years, which would undoubtedly be much larger.

In closing, it is worth reiterating that many of the results of the annual Child Maltreatment reports are open to misinterpretation–even by the very agency that publishes the reports. The press release announcing the report is titled, “Child Fatalities Due to Abuse and Neglect Decreased in FY 2020, Report Finds” even though the report explains that many of the child fatalities counted for a given year actually occurred in previous years. While the report is very clear in attributing the drop in victimization findings to the pandemic, ACF Acting Assistant Secretary JooYeun Chang is quoted in the press release as saying, “While the data in today’s report shows a decrease in child maltreatment, there is still work to do.” These misstatements suggest that agency leaders either did not read the report or knowingly distorted the data to support an optimistic message. It is not surprising that federal leaders are trying to present the data to their advantage. In my commentary on the AFCARS report, I reported that states that were taking credit for the falling foster care rolls due to the pandemic. The urge to take credit seems to be irresistible; that is why it is so important for the media and commentators to analyze these reports independently rather than paste the press release statements into their articles, as some outlets are all too willing to do.

*We cannot assert this as fact because the unit of analysis for substantiation switches to children rather than reports. Theoretically, the difference in percentages could occur if each substantiation involved half as many children in FFY 2020 as in FFY 2019–which is very unlikely.

**Decrease for 13-17 age group was calculated by Child Welfare Monitor from data in Table 7-5.

***In contrast, the AFCARS report indicates 216,838 children were placed in foster care. The reason for the difference might be the missing data from some states in NCANDS as well as the fact that AFCARS includes all removals that took place in 2020, not just those that occurred after a referral made in the same year.

One thought on “Child Maltreatment 2020: what did and didn’t happen in the first pandemic year

  1. This is great! Can’t wait to read!

    Marla Spindel Executive Director DC KinCare Alliance 202-360-7106




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