Child advocates warned of a surge in abuse cases, but there’s no evidence that’s happened

Calls to Louisiana’s child abuse hotline dropped by half due to COVID-19

Abuse word concept on cubes

The Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) has seen a nearly 50 percent decline in the number of hotline reports of suspected child abuse and neglect since March. While some have warned that school closures related to the novel coronavirus would cause a spike in the number of children being abused, experts say that expected surge in the number of cases hasn’t materialized.

The decline in calls to the state hotline began after Gov. John Bel Edwards issued the March 16 statewide closure of public schools as COVID-19 struck Louisiana. The closures effectively sidelined teachers, counselors and school personnel, who are the primary sources of abuse and neglect reports.

Teachers are considered “mandatory reporters” under federal law, meaning they must contact child welfare authorities if they have any suspicion that a child is being abused or neglected. The reports are made by calling a hotline number managed by each state’s child services agency. Fewer than half are actually referred for an investigation by DCFS.

In April and May, DCFS received a total of 5,198 reports, compared to 9,257 over the same two-month period last year. Because school would have let out for summer, the numbers were about the same for the month of June at roughly 3,300.

“This was not unexpected,” DCFS Asst. Secretary of Child Welfare Rhenda Hodnett said in a written statement. “We typically see fewer reports whenever school is out, as many of our primary reporters are teachers and school personnel.” 

Hodnett said the community could watch out for any signs of abuse or neglect by checking in on family, friends and neighbors through FaceTime calls.

“Get eyes not just on the adults but also the kids,” she said. “Ask about their well-being, how they’re feeling, what they’re doing to cope with the circumstances.”

A similar trend has occurred across the country, with several states seeing more than a 40 percent drop in reports. The decrease prompted some child-welfare experts to warn that children being at home with stressed-out parents would cause surges in abuse. 

Dr. Lori Frasier, a pediatrician who heads a child-protection program at Penn State, told the Associated Press that some of her colleagues documented a sharp increase in shaken baby syndrome and children’s head injuries during the 2008 recession, which they attributed at least partly to economic stress. 

“With the pandemic, we saw the high jobless rates, the layoffs, and we thought ‘OK, now we’re in for it again,’” she said.

Nashville pediatrician Dr. Heather Williams also expected a pandemic-fueled surge but now believes the infusion of federal unemployment assistance may have helped ward off such an increase, she told the AP.

But the increase in child abuse cases apparently has not happened. 

Frasier reported input from 18 of her colleagues across the country and “no one has experienced the surge of abuse they were expecting.”

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which coordinates and monitors each state’s child welfare agency, has reported no detrimental effects from the decrease in child abuse hotline reports, according to Jerry Milner who heads the HHS Children’s Bureau. Milner, however, said more comprehensive data of abuse during the pandemic won’t be available for a few more months.

Milner told the AP he was troubled by the “racial underpinnings” in some of the early warnings that suggested low-income parents of color would be prone to abuse their kids during the pandemic.

Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, said that “in Black communities child protective services agencies are viewed for what they really are: a police force.”

“CPS investigators have more power than police,” Wexler wrote. “Effectively, they can enter homes and strip-search children without a warrant….More than half of Black children will endure such terror during their childhoods.”

Wexler and others have been pushing for reform measures across the country, including doing away with hotlines and unnecessary removals of children from their families, such as a case in Mississippi where a couple was accused of mental maltreatment for making their kids do too much homework.

While children do sometimes die of abuse or neglect, those cases represent just 0.05 percent of the total children that CPS agencies investigate in a given year, according statistics from the National Children’s Alliance. Most cases are ones of neglect, which can often be confused with poverty.

Despite the broad powers of child protection agencies, they seldom receive the level of scrutiny that law enforcement or immigration enforcement receives, largely due to the confidentiality laws surrounding their records and court proceedings. 

New Orleans Juvenile Court Judge Ernestine Gray managed to reduce the number of child removals by 89 percent in Orleans Parish between 2011 and 2017. She reportedly did this not by enacting any reforms but by simply applying the law and forcing DCFS to meet their legal burden, not being swayed by general concerns about a family.

“We shouldn’t be taking kids away from their parents because they don’t have food or a refrigerator,” she told the Washington Post. “And my reading of the law says we’re not supposed to take kids from their families unless it’s absolutely necessary.”

THE MORNING NEWSLETTER
Subscribe now.