The COVID-19 Context of Child Abuse Prevention

In news articles across the country, there have been several states (including Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois & Missouri) reporting dramatic drops (1/3 to 2/3) in reports of maltreatment compared to what would be expected. Normally drops in calls would be a welcome sight for child abuse prevention advocates, but sadly no program exists that is capable of resulting in such sudden and dramatic effects. Further, stress and material need are two considerable correlates of maltreatment, leading to speculation that abuse and neglect will increase not decline. So what is happening? Nationally about 40% (it varies by state) of reports are made by voluntary reporters (neighbors, family, friends, self-reports…). Most other reports are made by educators (20.5%) followed by law enforcement or legal staff (18.7%), with about 10% each coming from medical or social service personnel (US DHHS, 2020). When children are at home, there is limited contact with mandated reporters.

What reports do come in are now met with a “new normal” that we know little about as of yet. Following some federal guidance, standards around in-person check-ins for children in care as well as CPS investigations have changed dramatically. In Missouri, all staff are now working remotely. Staff trying to assess a child’s safety must first contact the family via phone to ask questions about possible COVID-19 exposure. If the responses are affirmative, the worker calls their supervisor and considers involving law enforcement because they have “protocols developed for COVID-19 response and may have personal protective equipment (PPE).” Illinois guidance suggests calling Emergency Medical Services (EMS) when concerns about COVID-19 are present. An article about child welfare in Connecticut stated that when in-person visits are unavoidable there is no protective gear for their staff. Of course, what we know of the virus now suggests that a CPS worker or family may not even know they have been infected. It is unclear how these responses will be carried out on the ground and how triage of calls may change in this situation.

While medical personnel and first responders are obviously prioritized for such gear, this situation raises questions about how we have neglected to consider the range of child and family serving professionals whose jobs require entering people’s homes. This includes not just child protection but also the large array of early childhood home visitation programs that provide parenting support for some of our most vulnerable families. Agencies are scrambling to try to move to virtual contact. For families without internet access this is limited to phone calls. What about for families without phones?

The focus on public health and the safety of those most vulnerable to serious illness or death from COVID-19 infection is completely understandable, as is the effort to alleviate as much financial stress as possible. However, we do need to consider how fragile our family support and child safety systems are. It is imperative that we do what we can to get messages out to families about resources: material needs, parenting, mental health and substance abuse, and others. It is equally important that we remember the strain this crisis is placing on the many people dedicated to serving the needs of families and protecting children who now find themselves in an utterly new and frightening context. Going forward we must learn from this and create the kind of systems (including ending the digital divide) and resources that our families, our children and the many frontline workers that serve them deserve.

Melissa Jonson-Reid, Ph.D.
Ralph and Muriel Pumphrey Professor of Social Work Research

Brett Drake, PhD

Kate Cobetto, Masters Research Fellow
Center for Innovation in Child Maltreatment Policy, Research & Training

Maria Gandarilla Ocampo, MSW
PhD Research Assistant, Center for Innovation in Child Maltreatment Policy, Research & Training

Links to works cited

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