COVID-19, Child Maltreatment & Reporting: What to Expect as Children Return to School

In Texas, suspected abuse or neglect of children is reported to the state through a centralized Statewide Intake (SWI) Abuse Hotline. Calls placed to SWI regarding suspected child abuse or neglect follow a reliable seasonal pattern. There are two yearly peaks, in April/May (as the school year comes to a close) and in October (as the school year resumes). The lowest volume of reports occurs during the summer and over the winter holiday break, when children are not in school. As school personnel are consistently the most common source of SWI calls regarding suspected child maltreatment in Texas, it is unsurprising that hotline reporting patterns track with the school year.

Cases of child maltreatment that are handled by Child Protective Investigations (CPI) and Child Protective Services (CPS) reflect only those cases that are reported to the state through SWI. The cases that come to the attention of the state do not reflect the full number of children who experience maltreatment. In fact, federal research estimates that only about 30- 40 percent of actual maltreatment in the population is reported to child protection authorities. 

How has COVID-19 changed the landscape of child maltreatment and reports to SWI?

In March 2020, Governor Abbott ordered that all schools in Texas temporarily close to slow the spread of COVID-19. As schools closed, the volume of reports received by SWI dropped to levels below what would be expected based on prior years. Aside from children not being seen in school, it is likely that many children of all ages, even those who are not yet school- aged, have also been seen less often by medical personnel, daycare staff, and extended family members during the pandemic-related shutdowns. When children are less visible to others outside the home, there are fewer people to observe suspected maltreatment and make reports.

Given the exceptional nature of our current circumstances due to the pandemic, there are many questions about what can be expected this fall, in terms of child maltreatment reports, as schools and daycares throughout the state begin a staggered process of reopening, and as children are seen more often outside the home.

Mapping potential scenarios requires attention to two important questions:

1. Has the underlying occurrence of maltreatment in the population changed due to COVID-19? In other words, have more children actually been abused or neglected during the months of the pandemic compared to typical years? There are some reasons to hypothesize that actual maltreatment may have increased during the pandemic. Research has established that child maltreatment is associated with many factors, some of which include parental stress, parental mental health, family income, unemployment, and general socioeconomic conditions, all of which have been negatively affected by the pandemic. Further, many lower-income families could experience unstable housing or homelessness once federal protections against rental evictions expire. The extent of any pandemic-related increases in actual maltreatment, however, is hard to quantify. While reports to SWI are measurable, maltreatment that does not get reported to SWI is invisible from a data perspective.

2. Will the surge in SWI reports seen this fall be greater than the typical surges of past years due to children being out of school and other public settings longer than normal, as well as potential increases in actual maltreatment?
What does it mean for SWI reports and CPI/CPS caseloads as schools and daycares start to reopen and other normal activities start to slowly resume? Again, this is hard to estimate, and it is complicated by the lack of uniformity in reopenings. Schools in the state are not all resuming at the same time. In addition, parents may be able to choose whether to educate children at-home via distance learning or in the classroom, so many children may not return to school at all during the fall, or even for the entire school year. These circumstances are very different from typical years, when the majority of children return to classroom-based education at roughly the same time, producing the typical October spike in reports to SWI.

If actual occurrence of maltreatment has increased, and all of the excess cases of maltreatment that occurred during the shutdowns are reported as children come back into contact with mandated reporters such as teachers, counselors, and daycare staff, then the spike in calls to SWI this fall could be substantial. We do not know, however, whether additional cases of maltreatment that may have occurred during the shutdowns will be reported as restrictions begin to lift. Teachers and others may not become aware of abuse or neglect that occurred in the home while schools were closed. Further, if not all children return to classroom-based education, or if they return to school classroom later in the year or into 2021, increases in reports to SWI may be more spread out over time rather than being an acute spike. It is also possible that families who might have otherwise been reported to SWI during the pandemic-related closures might have received assistance or services from private community-based agencies.

What can be done to prepare for these unknown contingencies?

Even though there are many uncertainties related to a potential upcoming increase in reports to SWI regarding suspected child maltreatment, state and local agencies should err on the side of caution and prepare for an acute spike. The worst case scenario may not come to pass, but being overprepared will involve lower risk to children than being underprepared.

SWI should prepare for a larger-than-normal spike in reports as school openings continue and more children return to classrooms. Relatedly, CPI/CPS should prepare for a larger-than- normal spike in investigations, removals, and need for in-home services. Though precise predictions about what will happen may not be possible at this point, advance preparation will help ready the state, as well as community providers, for protecting vulnerable children.