Every summer, Child Protective Services (CPS) experiences what should be a welcome respite: a reduction in the number of suspected child abuse and neglect reports. Unfortunately, the decrease in reports made to CPS belies a more insidious truth. Research indicates that child abuse and neglect actually increase during the summer months. First, the amount of time children spend at home rises dramatically during the summer months, creating additional opportunities for abuse and neglect to occur. Second, the summer break means that children are out of the line of sight of “mandatory reporters”, i.e. teachers, school nurses, school counselors, and other school-based personnel. Child welfare workers are well aware of the pattern of diminishing child abuse and neglect reports and readily anticipate the counterintuitive nature of fewer reports of child maltreatment at a time when instances of child abuse and neglect are believed to increase.
If this phenomenon is the norm for regular, scheduled school breaks, it raises the question of what effect the COVID-19 pandemic has had on reports of suspected child abuse and neglect. Given the widely accepted belief that social isolation and elevated stress levels play a significant role in increased maltreatment of children, the pandemic compounds the issue with the additional concerns of contracting COVID-19, the widespread loss of income, and increased time spent in proximity to potential abusers, making our youth increasingly susceptible to maltreatment. Furthermore, the pandemic has also created lapses in family services, such as substance abuse counseling and anger management classes, deemed critical to fostering harmonious family environments This is of particular concern because many instances of domestic violence intersect with substance abuse.
A look at the number of suspected child abuse or neglect calls to the CPS reporting hotline illustrates the dramatic decline in reports in March of 2020, the month in which public schools ceased in-person instruction on campus. While students were still attending school in person during the first week of March, there were over 11,000 reports made to CPS. During the last week of March, when online instruction began, less than 6,000 reports were made. Roughly 25% of all child abuse and neglect reports are made by teachers, childcare workers and other community-based organizations; thus, this drop indicates that many suspected cases during school closures due to the COVID-19 lockdown went unreported. Furthermore, it raises concerns about a potential influx of reports now that many students have returned to school and how an already overwhelmed CPS system can efficiently investigate allegations of abuse or neglect. Even more disturbing are the rapidly approaching extended school breaks of the holiday season removing children from the line of sight of teachers, school nurses, and other school-based personnel, thus setting off the cycle of increased likelihood of child maltreatment and underreporting once again. In conjunction with Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s recent admonition that rising numbers of COVID-19 cases may necessitate another lockdown, fears of unreported child maltreatment remain.
***CPS encourages anyone who believes a child is being abused or neglected to call 1-800-252-5400 or to report it online at txabusehotline.org***