COVID-19 and Its Impact on Child Maltreatment Reports

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***

Egregious Constitutional Violations in Texas Youth Facilities Lead to Advocacy Groups Seeking Federal Help

Texas Appleseed and Disability Rights Texas have filed a complaint with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, citing “grievous violations of children’s constitutional rights” regarding the five state secure facilities run by the Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD). Violations include both sexual assault and gang violence due to persistent staffing issues. Unfortunately, the latest criticism is nothing new. TJJD has faced criticism in the past from reform advocates, the state legislature, and Governor Greg Abbott. This includes a 2010 letter signed by multiple organizations highlighting similar issues within the complaint.

Since media reports surfaced highlighting physical and sexual abuse at state run facilities in 2007, Texas has worked towards reforming its juvenile justice system.  Reform has included closing state secure facilities, moving money into the probation budget, and reducing the number of children housed in the state’s remaining facilities – yet it failed to address the unsafe conditions in the remaining facilities. Now, these remaining five TJJD state secure facilities continue to be plagued with conditions which violate federal Constitutional standards as well as jeopardize the health, safety, and rehabilitation of young people.

The complaint, using reports from the Office of the Independent Ombudsman (OIO), open   records requests to TJJD and the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), and direct communication with TJJD-involved young people and families, states the following issues persist:

  • Inability to ensure safety of young people (ex. staff turnover, reports of safety issues, and excessive restraints);
  • Abuse, including sexual victimization, within the facilities (sex abuse, inappropriate use of force, etc.);
  • Inadequate mental health care; and
  • Over-reliance on short-term security and lack of programming for youth in security (segregation).

Findings from the complaint include staffing shortages among all facilities, inadequate staffing and supervisor driven chaos, higher instances of sexual victimization among Texas youth, unnecessary and excessive force, and inadequate mental health care among the children. Each contribute to negative facility outcomes that run counter to the rehabilitation goal of Texas’ juvenile justice system. Brett Merfish, Director of Youth Justice at Texas Appleseed said it best, “The state facilities are not just failing the youth in them, they are hurting them [.]”

The current director, TJJD’s eighth director since 2007, has outlined a plan called the “Texas Model” to be introduced in this legislative session to address the ongoing problems. However, a lower staff-to-youth ratio is needed, and the plan fails to address the issues inherent to the facilities which are highlighted in the complaint.

The complaint concludes pointing out concerns with the ability to have outside monitoring since facilities have been closed due to COVID-19 and a plea for further investigation into the well documented, ongoing Constitutional violations.

The complaint can be found here.

For more information see the Disability Rights TX’s Press Release and additional coverage of the story at the Texas Tribune.

Weekly Round Up (November 20, 2019)

STATE WOULD EXPAND JUVENILE COURTS, HALLS TO 18- AND 19- YEAR-OLDS UNDER PROPOSAL 

California would expand its juvenile-justice system to include 18- and 19-year-olds under a proposal from the state’s probation chiefs, a move they said would allow a more restorative approach for those teenagers but one expert warned could be difficult to implement.

Read more… 

JUVENILE JUSTICE GROUPS SAY FELONY MURDER CHARGES HARM CHILDREN, YOUNG ADULTS

Felony murder is not your average murder. Juvenile justice advocates call felony murder laws arcane and say they unfairly harm children and young adults. Prosecutors can charge them with felony murder even if they didn’t kill anyone or intend to do so. What’s required is the intent to commit a felony — like burglary, arson or rape — and that someone dies during the process.

Everyone involved in that underlying felony can be held responsible for the death. In some cases, a person who wasn’t even present when the death occurred may face a felony murder charge too. It’s a controversial provision that has been around for hundreds of years. It got its start in England, which abolished the rule in the 1950s. Other countries followed suit.

Read more… 

JDAI SHIFTS FOCUS TO OVERHAULING PROBATION, INCREASING DIVERSION  

When the Annie E. Casey Foundation launched the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) in the tough-on-crime era of the early 1990s, politicians were labeling teenage offenders “superpredators” and states were passing laws making it easier to prosecute kids as adults. Rates of juvenile detention were skyrocketing.

Nearly 30 years later, JDAI’s radical-for-its-time proposition that locking youth up neither improves their behavior nor protects public safety has been borne out.

Average daily juvenile detention populations have been halved in the more than 300 counties across 40 states and Washington, D.C., that have adopted JDAI reforms. Detention admissions are down 57%. In most localities, crime rates have continued to decline.

Read more…