Stories warning of a coming surge in child abuse have been a staple of local news reporting throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. For months, experts quoted in these reports issued dire predictions that severe instances of child abuse were poised to skyrocket due, in part, to the widespread move toward virtual schooling. The logic of these warnings followed a similar pattern: More children learning from home combined with increased parental stress caused by the economic downturn created a perfect storm where abuse at the hands of parents and caregivers would go undetected by teachers.
On the surface, these warnings weren’t entirely unreasonable. After all, we know that periods of high parental stress can increase the risk of abuse or neglect, and school officials are consistently among the top sources of child maltreatment reports. A decrease in the number of calls to child abuse hotlines in 2020 compared with 2019 seemed to add credibility to the concerns.
But as the pandemic wore on, the predicted spike in abuse never materialized. In a conversation with the Associated Press earlier this month, top officials with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services revealed that they’ve seen no credible evidence supporting the dire warnings. This is good news and underscores the need for comprehensive child protective services reform.
Reforming the system requires us to first understand why the predictions of a coming abuse epidemic were wrong. Proponents of the predictions frequently cited the drop in the number of reports to child abuse hotlines in the wake of pandemic-related shutdowns as evidence that severe cases of abuse were being missed. However, hotline calls tell us very little about the prevalence and severity of child maltreatment.
Each year, the federal Children’s Bureau issues a report to Congress analyzing data on child abuse and neglect from all 50 states. This report includes a breakdown of the number of child maltreatment referrals received by state child welfare agencies and the outcome of those reports. Approximately 4.3 million reports alleging child abuse or neglect involving 7.8 million children are received every year. In 2019, 45.5 percent — nearly 2 million reports — were “screened out,” meaning that child protective services immediately determined that they were unsubstantiated. The allegations investigated by CPS involved close to 3.5 million children, 80 percent of whom were found to be nonvictims. Going back to the original pool of 7.8 million children subject of a hotline call, only 656,000 — just 8 percent — were determined to have been victims of maltreatment. These figures have held consistent for at least the past decade.
Relying on the number of hotline calls as a predictor of abuse is, at best, misleading and could fuel unfounded panic that harms innocent children and families. It is well-documented that child welfare suffers from a problem of over-reporting, which strains limited taxpayer resources and increases the risk that children in actual danger of harm will fall through the cracks. This is particularly dangerous in states like Texas, which allow for anonymous reporting. Studies show that 16 percent of hotline calls are from anonymous sources and only 1.5 percent of these reports go on to indicate abuse or neglect.
Moreover, pointing to fluctuations in the number of hotline calls as indicative of abuse trends obscures the true circumstances that lead to children entering foster care, thus hamstringing our ability to preserve families and protect children in imminent danger of harm.
Contrary to popular perception, the majority of confirmed child maltreatment cases — roughly 75 percent in Texas and 61 percent nationally — are for neglect only. Studies show that there is a statistically significant relationship between child poverty and allegations of neglect. This is due, in part, to the vague definition of “neglect” employed by many states that leaves the door open for child protective services to remove children for reasons other than actual or imminent harm.
At a time when so many families are struggling economically, it is critical that elected officials take a data-driven approach to policymaking. This is especially important in the field of child welfare, which is so often driven by emotion. No one wants to see children harmed, and we all must do everything we can to prevent horrific cases of abuse.
But the reality is the horrific cases that make the front page aren’t the norm for most of the more than 400,000 children in foster care nationwide. The lesson of the COVID-19 pandemic is not to increase surveillance of struggling families or subject more children to the trauma of family separation based on speculation and fear. Rather, it is to increase community-driven efforts to support struggling families that give children the opportunity to grow up in a safe, loving home.