Here’s the theory: Americans are losing their jobs at a rate unseen since the Great Depression, intensifying the strains on low-income families at risk of abusing or neglecting their children. During months of closed schools and shelter-in-place orders, such parents have also been tasked with full-time child care, a recipe for conflict in the home. Meanwhile, investigators and reporters of child maltreatment, such as teachers, are trying to monitor kids’ safety over Zoom, which is hardly adequate if their abuser is hovering just off-screen.
This all makes intuitive sense. And there is frightening reporting that at some hospitals, there have been more cases than usual of the most severe types of child abuse—including head injuries—in recent months, causing profound concern.
For most Americans, it is nothing short of horrific to think of even a single child being so injured by his or her own parents or family members as to require emergency medical treatment.
Yet family advocates, child welfare experts and state agency officials told The Marshall Project in interviews that any assumption of a significant spike in abuse may be premature—or overblown. And they are concerned, they say, that amid a national discussion about the over-policing of Black and brown people, it is mostly poor families of color who will be increasingly policed and stigmatized as a result of such hypothesizing.
“We have a child welfare system that is particularly, extremely sensitive to the media, so we should be very sure of narratives before we put them out there,” said Emma Ketteringham, managing director of the family defense practice at the Bronx Defenders in New York City, an organization that provides free legal services for low-income people.
Historically, sensationalized rhetoric about child abuse has led to more children being removed from their parents—“and it is a really, really big deal to separate a child from his or her family,” Ketteringham said.
It’s an even bigger deal these days. Ongoing social distancing rules mean that once a family is pulled apart, they will have less opportunity for in-person visitation, and with many courts still closed, less ability to fight to get their child back.
Experts say it could be months before we have solid statistics on these trends, but for now, here is what we do and do not know about child abuse amid the COVID-19 pandemic:
There is no statistical evidence of a spike in child abuse. But that could just be because teachers and others haven’t been able to monitor kids.
Many journalists and child advocates have noted that there may be a lack of data showing the purported increase in child abuse because, due to school closures and stay-at-home orders, there have been fewer “eyes on children” to report what is happening to kids. Teachers and educators, for instance, who like nurses and social workers are mandated by law to report any signs of child maltreatment, normally make the most calls to child abuse hotlines, according to federal child maltreatment data.
To be sure, while stuck at home, young people have clearly been less able to tell a teacher, pediatrician, neighbor or other trusted adult what they are experiencing.
But before the pandemic, reports by teachers and school staff were not substantiated 90 percent of the time, according to federal data—raising questions about whether losing these reports is actually a major problem.
Hotline calls made by teachers, who even in normal times can only guess at what is going on in their students’ homes, just do not turn out to be validated very often, according to data from the National Data Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect.
One 2017 study in the American Journal of Public Health on the system of mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse, including by teachers, found that it has no effect on detecting the physical abuse of children.
Elizabeth Bartholet, faculty director of the child advocacy program at Harvard Law School, says that such findings may be misleading—they may simply reflect the inability or unwillingness of under-resourced child protection agencies to actually respond to, investigate and substantiate the allegations that come in.
Still, many child welfare experts and officials told The Marshall Project that losing hotline reports amid the pandemic is not the catastrophic problem it has been made out to be in news reports—because they do not identify and prevent most child abuse anyway.
In other words, we don’t catch the majority of child abuse in America even in normal circumstances.
Multiple studies of child maltreatment indicate that the majority child abuse in this country is not actually identified and addressed. And roughly 90 percent of children who are killed as a result of abuse or neglect did not have previous cases with a child protective services agency, according to federal data.
Experts give conflicting answers as to why this is. “That’s a gaping hole in our knowledge,” said Andy Barclay, statistical expert at the child welfare research organization Fostering Court Improvement.
Possible reasons include the obvious: child abuse typically happens in private, behind closed doors.
Some children’s rights advocates reiterate that some child maltreatment also gets missed because child welfare agencies too often opt to triage or not to investigate allegations, both because of a lack of funding and caseworkers and also because of the ideological priority that many place “on keeping children, at some or great risk, with their families,” said Bartholet of Harvard Law School.
Others say the excess of hotline calls may itself be the issue.
“There may be a ‘needle in a haystack’ problem,” said Josh Gupta-Kagan, an expert on child welfare at the University of South Carolina School of Law. “The more reports (especially for low-level stuff) there are, the harder it is for [Child Protective Services] to identify and respond appropriately to the serious stuff, and that creates a negative feedback loop” in which people who actually know about severe child abuse “see calling CPS as likely to do nothing.”
Now, with lower caseloads, child welfare workers may actually be able to focus on real abuse, because the reports coming in are more likely to be accurate.
Pre-coronavirus, state child protection agencies spent their time and taxpayer funds investigating “hunches, vague suspicions, better-safe-than-sorry beliefs” and false reports often having to do with families simply being poor, wrote Jane M. Spinak, an expert on family law at Columbia Law School, in an essay in a new e-book published by the university. Not getting as many of those calls, she wrote, “will give investigators more time to scrutinize when children are actually in danger.”
In Florida, for example, child abuse reports were down in the spring but verifications of abuse reports jumped by more than 10 percent, according to state data.
But in other states where there isn’t complete data yet, this too is largely speculation at this point.
Meanwhile, poor parents of color are being monitored and investigated less.
According to interviews with nearly a dozen parents as well as child welfare experts and attorneys, low-income mothers and fathers have for these past few months no longer been subjected to as many child welfare calls stemming from their poverty—nor to the invasive, scary visits from government agents that follow.
Sarah Harris is a subway train conductor in New York City—she says she usually works midnights—as well as a single mother of two boys, ages 9 and 3. In the past, she says, teachers have called child-services on her for not providing her older son with the proper ADHD medicine. She also worried that catching up on sleep during the day would subject her to calls about not supervising her kids.
Harris says that like many parents, she is feeling the stresses of coronavirus. She works all night then has to help home-school her children. She can’t de-stress by taking the kids to the wax museum or by going out to have a cocktail.
But for once she does not feel like she is getting reported all the time for her parenting mistakes. “Poor people are usually constantly inspected by all these agencies,” she said. “Now there is kind of a peacefulness.”
Yet the speculation about increasing child abuse, advocates worry, is already creating new kinds of surveillance of these vulnerable families.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva in April announced that due to the drop in child abuse reports, police officers there would begin doing regular door-knocks at what he called at-risk homes. (The city’s child protection agency then nixed this plan on the grounds that it would be harmful, not helpful, to marginalized families.) In dozens of states, public service ads on TV and Facebook have been encouraging untrained members of the public to look for signs of abuse among struggling families—which could be distorted by their class and race biases, parent advocates say. It’s not clear yet whether reports of this sort are occurring.
And the Computing Technology Industry Association, the international trade-association for tech companies and consultants, is recommending data tools to child protection officials—saying that unemployment rates and frequency of 311 calls, for instance, could be used to identify neighborhoods where child abuse is likely spiking.
“They’re basically saying, ‘Let’s go find the poor people,’” Lexie Gruber, a child welfare data expert, said of the technology association's proposal to find unemployed families. Gruber has testified on Capitol Hill, including about her own experience as a former foster youth.
In an emailed statement, the authors of the association’s recommendation to track unemployment rates and other poverty metrics said they wholeheartedly agree that data must be analyzed and acted upon “with a lens toward equity and an awareness of the disproportionality that is present in child welfare.”
Some children’s rights activists counter that when the physical safety of children is on the line, what would actually be discriminatory would be to not investigate what’s happening to them just because they are poor or Black or brown.
We do know that when the country is in economic distress, child neglect increases.
Lower income clearly means less ability to provide children with food, shelter, clothing and healthy living conditions.
But, in an echo of recent calls to re-imagine law enforcement, parent advocates say the system should respond by offering help, including economic help, not by policing families and potentially separating them. If a kid is not getting enough food during the pandemic, they say, the best thing is to call a food bank, not to call child protective services.
“If poverty itself is defined as neglect (which it often is) and the pandemic pushes more families into poverty (which it has) then in that sense yes, there will be a ‘spike’ in so-called ‘child neglect’ when the schools reopen and children are seen to have less in the way of food and clothing,” Richard Wexler, executive director of the advocacy group National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, wrote in an email. “The solution to this, of course, is money—not for the child welfare establishment, but for at-risk families.”
Gov. Gavin Newsom of California has offered a potential example of this approach, providing $200 a month to families likely to lose their children to foster care.
Short of truly addressing poverty, experts and advocates say, another solution could be to have child protection services respond only to severe abuse cases while creating an entirely separate, less punitive system for calls that come in about forms of neglect arising from poverty, such as hunger and homelessness. These cases would be handled by social workers who would take a public-health approach to helping struggling parents.
“The child welfare system was never either a humane response to child poverty or effective at identifying and preventing serious child abuse,” said the Bronx Defenders’ Ketteringham. Maybe post-pandemic, she said, it can come closer to being both.