Hidden child maltreatment: One more reason to vaccinate teachers and open schools

With the end of the holiday break, about half the nation’s public students are not returning to school buildings but instead are continuing with virtual education. The impacts of school building closures on education, the economy and student mental health have been widely covered. But there is another consequence of virtual education that has not been as widely reported–the loss of the protective eye on children that their teachers and other school staff provide. Now that the COVID vaccine is becoming available, it is urgent that we get teachers vaccinated and students back to school.

In the wake of the coronavirus emergency beginning last March, almost all public school buildings in the nation closed, with few if any reopening before the end of the term. Many systems reopened buildings for fully in-person education or “hybrid” (partially virtual) models in August or September, and others opened their buildings later. As of Labor Day, 62 percent of U.S. public school students were attending school virtually, but only 38 percent were still online-only by early November, according to a company called Burbio, which monitors 1,200 school districts around the country. However, a spike in COVID cases beginning in November resulted in many systems returning to virtual education, with 53 percent of students attending virtually by January 4, 2021. Burbio expects a decrease in this percentage over the next six weeks as systems open up again after the virus spikes abate.

Almost immediately after the school closures last spring, reports began rolling in about the failure of online education to reach many students, especially those who were poor and most at risk of school failure. Some students lacked computers or internet access; others were unable to engage remotely in education. There is deep concern about the long-term impact of school building closures on young people’s academic performance, particularly for those at most risk of poor outcomes. With the passage of time, more information began to flow in about other consequences to children of missing school, such as worrisome impacts on their mental health.

But many child welfare professionals and advocates have long shared another concern. They worried about unseen abuse and neglect among the children stuck at home with increasingly stressed parents and not being seen by teachers and other adults. This is especially concerning for younger children, who are less likely to seek help on their own. And indeed, as soon as schools closed around the country last March due to the COVID pandemic, almost every state reported large drops in calls to their child abuse and neglect hotlines. The loss of reports from teachers (who make one in five of reports nationwide) was probably the major contributor, combined with the loss of reports from other professionals, friends, and family members seeing less of children due to stay-at-home orders and physical distancing.

After the academic year ended, data became available that that allowed comparison of reports, investigations, and findings of maltreatment in the pandemic spring compared to the spring of 2019. These analyses showed a large difference between reports, investigations, and substantiations of maltreatment in 2020 relative to 2019, followed by a convergence in data during the summer when schools are normally closed. In our local blog, we analyzed data from the District of Columbia Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA). For this post we used our DC data and information from three other jurisdictions for which data was readily available: New York City, Los Angeles, and Florida.[1]

In the District of Columbia, schooling has remained virtual since the onset of the pandemic, with a small number of students joining their virtual classrooms from school buildings while supervised by non-teaching staff. Figure One shows the number of reports received at the CFSA hotline in January through September 2019 and 2020. The contrast between the two years is obvious. In the “typical” year of 2019, the number of reports increased every month until May,[2] dropped to a much lower level in July and August when schools were closed, and then bounced up in September after schools reopened. The pandemic year of 2020 looked very different. The number of calls fell from February to March with the closure of schools, followed by a much larger drop in April, and stayed fairly flat until a modest rise in September with the opening of school. It’s as if summer vacation started in March, with a slight increase of reports when virtual school started again. In every month of the pandemic, the number of hotline calls in 2020 was considerably less than its counterpart in 2019. The total number of hotline calls received between March and June and in September (roughly the period affected by COVID-19) fell from 7916 in 2019 to 4681 in FY 2020, a decrease of 40.8 percent.

Source: CFSA Data Dashboard, https://cfsadashboard.dc.gov/, data analyzed by Child Welfare Monitor DC.

New York City data show a similar picture, as shown in a report from the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) comparing hotline calls in 2020 to those in previous years. It is clear that 2020 is the outlier, with reports in 2017 through 2019 displaying similar seasonal patterns. In contrast to the previous years, reports fell in March 2020 with the schools closing on March 16 and then plunged in April during the first full month of school closure. There was a slight uptick in May and then reports remained basically flat before jumping up in October (when school buildings reopened) and falling again in November after schools closed again on November 19. ACS does not provide the numbers for each month but for January through November of 2020, there were 46,375 reports compared to 59,539 during that period in 2019. That is a difference of 22 percent; this difference would clearly be greater if we were able to look only at the weeks when schools were closed due to COVID-19.

Figure Two

Source: NYC Children, Flash Monthly Indicators Report, December 2020, available from https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/acs/pdf/data-analysis/flashReports/2020/12.pdf

Data from Los Angeles, where school buildings have not yet reopened, tell a similar story–a decline in reports in March after the pandemic emergency and school closures and then a big drop in April, the first full month when schools were closed. Referrals remained below the previous year for the rest of 2020, though the difference narrowed. The total number of referrals was 44,959 in March through November of 2020, compared to 61,515 in the same period of 2021–a decrease of 26.9 percent, and the decrease would be greater if only the weeks of school were included.

Figure Three

Data from Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services, https://dcfs.lacounty.gov/resources/data-and-monthly-fact-sheets/, analyzed by Child Welfare Monitor

It is interesting to look at Florida, where the governor mandated that school buildings open in the fall semester. Florida data for last spring looks a lot like that for DC, New York City, and Los Angeles. But referrals almost matched 2019 during June and July, with the onset of summer break. August 2020 referrals were slightly lower than those in August 2019, perhaps because many schools opened virtually, but the gap narrowed again in September, October and November as more schools opened in person. And the shape of the fall curves was nearly identical in both years, with referrals rising in October.

Figure Four

Data from Florida Department of Children and Families, https://www.myflfamilies.com/programs/childwelfare/dashboard/intakes-received.shtml?Landing%20Page%20InvRec=2, analyzed by Child Welfare Monitor

Not everybody agrees that the loss of reports from school staff is a problem. Teachers have sometimes been criticized for making too many reports, and some analysts have suggested that the COVID closures might serve a useful function by eliminating frivolous or inappropriate reports. Indeed, some analyses have shown that the reports that are being made tend to be more serious or high-risk, suggesting that more of the less serious reports are being suppressed. If there was a large increase in the percentage of reports accepted for investigation or found to be substantive, there might be less reason to worry. But this does not appear to be the case.

  • In the District of Columbia, as shown in Table One at the bottom of the article, the percentage of reports accepted for investigation was slightly greater in 2020 than in the previous year. But as Figure Five shows, this percentage increase in accepted reports was not enough to substantially narrow the large gap between the number of accepted reports in the two years. Both the number of hotline calls accepted for investigation and the number of substantiated investigations showed the same sharp decrease as the number of reports to the hotline.
  • Similarly, the number of investigations in New York City showed the same precipitous drop from 2019 to 2020 as did the number of reports, as Figure Seven shows. And the percentage of investigations that “showed some credible evidence of abuse or neglect” in January through September 2020 was actually one point lower than that in the same period of 2019.
  • In Los Angeles, the percentage of referrals accepted for investigation actually declined during the pandemic, as indicated in Table Two below. So the year-to-year gap in number of referrals accepted for investigation (see Figure Seven) was even greater than the gap in total referrals. (Los Angeles does not provide data on substantiated reports.)
  • In Florida, as indicated in Table Three, there was a very slight increase in the percent of of intakes accepted for investigation during March-May 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. But as Figure Eight shows, the total numbers were much lower than in the previous year. (Florida does not provide data on the number of reports that were substantiated.)

It is clear from data in the four jurisdictions described here that reports to child abuse hotlines fell steeply in all four jurisdictions after the pandemic school closures, absolutely and relative to the same months of the previous year. In Florida, where schools reopened in September, reports increased to almost the level of the year before. It seems indisputable that measures imposed to fight COVID-19 were behind these changes and highly likely that school building closures were a large factor behind the reporting reductions. Moreover, as reports decreased, so did the numbers of reports investigated and substantiated, thus dashing any hope that only frivolous reports were being weeded out by the school closures.

Now that a vaccine is available, some Governors in states that have not reopened schools have proposed plans to prioritize teachers for vaccines and finally reopen buildings. Governor Gavin Newsom of California has offered a reopening plan including prioritization of school staff for vaccinations throughout spring 2021. West Virginia Governor Jim Justice has announced his plan to open pre-K, elementary, and middle schools for in-person learning on Tuesday, Jan 19. High school students will return to in-person school only in less-heavily-infected counties. Justice announced that the state will vaccinate all teachers and school personnel over the next two to three weeks as part of Phase One of the state’s vaccination plan.

Data from around the country clearly show that child welfare agencies received fewer reports, conducted fewer investigations, and made fewer findings of child abuse or neglect in times and places where schools were virtual. This fact adds to the many other reasons to open all closed school buildings as soon as possible. Opposition from teachers and their unions has been a major reason for keeping schools virtual. It is understandable that teachers were reluctant to return to buildings. But now, availability of vaccines makes it possible for schools to reopen throughout the country without endangering teachers–as long as all teachers are offered the vaccine before returning to classrooms. The high costs to to students of closed school buildings, among which undetected abuse should be included, mean that we should not wait any longer to bring students back to school in person.

[1]: These jurisdictions were chosen as large state or county child welfare systems that had readily available about reports, investigations and substantiations. Many other large jurisdictions do not post such data.

[2]:DC’s pattern of increasing reports from January through May is different from the other jurisdictions and may be related to its law requiring schools to report educational neglect when a student accumulates ten unexcused absences in a school year.

Table One: Hotline Calls Accepted for Investigation, District of Columbia

Source: https://cfsadashboard.dc.gov/; Data analyzed by Child Welfare Monitor DC

Figure Five

Source: https://cfsadashboard.dc.gov/; Data analyzed by Child Welfare Monitor DC

Figure Six

Source: NYC Children, Flash Monthly Indicators Report, December 2020, available from https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/acs/pdf/data-analysis/flashReports/2020/12.pdf

Table Two

Source: https://cfsadashboard.dc.gov/; Data analyzed by Child Welfare Monitor DC

Figure Seven

Table Three: Intakes Accepted for Investigation, Florida

Source: https://www.myflfamilies.com/programs/childwelfare/dashboard/intakes-received.shtml?Landing%20Page%20InvRec=1; Data analyzed by Child Welfare Monitor

Figure Eight

Data from https://www.myflfamilies.com/programs/childwelfare/dashboard/intakes-received.shtml?Landing%20Page%20InvRec=1; Data analyzed by Child Welfare Monitor

When social distancing can kill: child protection during a pandemic


NJbridgethegapSocial distancing is essential to break the back of  the coronavirus pandemic. But for children who are at risk of abuse and neglect, social distancing means social isolation and the loss of any hope of rescue from their desperate circumstances. It is important for child welfare agencies to reach out to the general public and those workers still seeing children with special messages about warning signs of maltreatment and how to get help.

For children living in abusive or neglectful homes, the pandemic is a perfect storm. On one hand, abuse and neglect are likely to increase due to parental stress and more time spent together in close quarters due to social distancing. Research suggests that child abuse increases in times of economic or natural disasters.

At the same time as families are under increased stress and spending more time together, children are not being seen by mandated reporters, especially teachers and school staff.  One in five reports comes from education personnel, according to the most recent federal data; hence the annual summer falloff in reports and the uptick every October. Today, almost every school building in the country is closed. While many schools are conducting online classes, the New York Times has reported that fewer than half of students are participating in some schools. Absence from virtual classrooms seems to be especially high in schools with many low-income students, who often lack access to computers and the internet. Some students and parents have completely fallen out of touch with their schools. And these are precisely the students who are more likely to be abused or neglected.

Reports about declines in hotline calls have appeared from almost every state, with calls in dropping often by half and in some jurisdictions by as much as 70 percent since schools shut their doors.1 School closures cannot explain this entire decline. Clearly other possible abuse reporters, such as law enforcement, health personnel, neighbors, and family members are seeing less of children as well.

At the same time, there is reason to think that child abuse is increasing during the pandemic.  A three-year-old Fort Worth boy who died from “severe child abuse” on Easter morning was the third child in less than a month to die at Cook Children’s Hospital, according to the hospital. Since March 13, eight children have been admitted to the hospital for severe child abuse and three have died. The hospital normally sees six child abuse deaths in an entire year. The Arnold Palmer Children’s Hospital in Orlando, has seen a spike in child abuse cases. According to the medical director, the hospital normally sees one or two trauma cases a month. But in the last few weeks, eight children were brought to the hospital with severe injuries due to abuse. At Children’s National Medical Center in Washington DC, 86 percent of children coming to the Emergency Room with injuries suggesting child abuse between March 15 and April 20 had to be hospitalized compared to 50 percent in the same period of last year.

Ironically, April is Child Abuse Prevention month, when government and nonprofit agencies work to increase public awareness about child abuse and neglect and the need to report it. Unfortunately, a recent study casts doubt on the effectiveness of public education efforts to date. A nationwide survey conducted during the pandemic found that a large majority of Americans are not willing to report excessive physical punishment to the police or CPS. The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NYSPCC)  surveyed 1,004 adults nationwide on March 27 to 29, in the midst of the crisis. They found that only 19% of adults say they are “very likely” to report a parent who is “excessively spanking or physically punishing their child” to child protective services. Only 36 percent of adults say they are very likely to contact the police if they see a stranger doing the same thing. Among the reasons given for their unwillingness to report, 68 percent of respondents cite that it might make things worse for the child, 35 percent cite the risk to their own family, and 30 percent say it is “none of my business.”

These survey results, with or without a pandemic, are frightening.  As Mary Pulido of NYSPCC puts it, “If what you see in public is enough to even make you think about calling the authorities, think of what that child could be enduring at home, behind closed doors.” But these results should not be surprising to those who are aware of past cases of egregious child abuse which were not reported despite obvious red flags.  For example, the media has reported on the failure of family and neighbors to report major concerns about treatment of the 13 Turpin children, who were imprisoned, starved, and physically abused by their parents over many years. 

What we know about the reluctance of people to report their concerns about children’s treatment suggests the need for a much more concerted effort for the long-term. Such an effort should be led by the federal government and implemented at the state and local levels. It should aim to increase knowledge of the signs of child abuse and neglect and convince citizens that it is their obligation to report, as described in an earlier post. Such a campaign would be more powerful if all citizens were required to report when they fear that a child is being harmed.

For this time of pandemic, we cannot hope for an immediate sea-change in attitudes, but governments can integrate messaging about child abuse and neglect into their communications with the public about the pandemic. Special efforts should be made to encourage teachers who are interacting with students online and other essential workers who have contact with children and families. Sadly, the federal Children’s Bureau has not issued any guidance to states and and counties resources and suggestions for how to do this. Such leadership has been left to state and local governments and nonprofits.

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. Special campaigns such as  #bridgethegap in New Jersey, may be helpful as well. As shown in the poster above, the public is reminded that “It IS your business. Everyone in New Jersey is a mandated reporter.” Readers should reach out to their government executives to urge them to incorporate such messages into their communications with the public. 

Special materials targeted to teachers and other staff may be helpful as well. New Jersey has produced a special message for education personnel asking them to “try to get ‘eyes on’ every child at least once a week.” Maine’s Office of Child and Family Services, in partnership with the Department of Education, has also issued guidance for educators, health care providers and community members for spotting and responding to signs of child maltreatment.

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CHILD USA has issued a list of Tips for Teachers on Child Welfare and Online Safety during COVID-19. This helpful document lists questions to ask students at the elementary, middle, and high school levels to assess their physical safety, online safety, and whether they are getting enough to eat. It also lists key items for teachers to look for when seeing their students online, such as the appearance of the student and the home, and things that the student might say.  And it suggests special efforts to monitor students with issues with drug abuse, mental illness or domestic abuse in their families. All child welfare agencies should ensure that their local school systems distribute this checklist to their teachers.

The document from CHILD USA does not say what teachers should do when they are unable to reach a child and their family, which is probably the case for many of the children most at-risk of maltreatment. Jurisdictions should consider the possibility of treating the inability to reach a child and family after several tries over several days as grounds for a teacher to call the child abuse hotline.

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States and counties might also try to enlist the only people who are seeing children regularly other than their immediate families–grocery and pharmacy workers and mail carriers. A representative of the Allegheny County Department of Children Youth and Families told a reporter that the agency “plans to pivot its awareness campaign” to focus on these workers. They plan to make sure the workers get the message that “if you see something, say something.” A grassroots campaign run by former child welfare workers in Arizona is also trying to contact the people who are still seeing children, including grocery workers, delivery services, and food banks.

As Angelina Jolie wrote in Time Magazine, “We were underprepared for this moment because we have yet to take the protection of children seriously enough as a society.” This is a major problem which needs to be addressed for the long term, so that next time there is a crisis, we will have a society that is ready to keep its children safe in spite of physical isolation.

This post is being updated daily during the coronavirus crisis include new information.

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