Maltreatment fatalities up 1,780 to 1,840; officials say “no evidence” of a surge in victimization during pandemic
As America headed into the coronavirus pandemic, the number of children who were confirmed to have been victims of abuse or neglect fell to its lowest point in a long time, perhaps more than two decades, according to the annual report released today by the Administration for Children and Families (ACF).
Child Maltreatment 2019 identified a rounded total of 656,000 unique victims of maltreatment. Youth Services Insider’s review of annual maltreatment reports available on ACF’s website found that this is the lowest total since at least 2001. In the early 2000s, the number of victims routinely reached 900,000.
The victimization rate per 1,000 dipped below nine for the first time since 2015, though changes in this rate have varied widely from state to state. Georgia has seen its rate plummet by 63% (10.8 down to 4) while the rate in Montana has doubled from 8.2 to 16.3.
“These new numbers show we are making significant strides in reducing victimization due to maltreatment,” said ACF Assistant Secretary Lynn Johnson, in a statement announcing the results. “It is my hope HHS’ Administration for Children and Families continues our work with state and tribal partners to further reduce incidences of child abuse and neglect.”
The number of abuse and neglect cases with the worst outcomes remain a concern to some child welfare experts. The number of fatalities increased from 1,751 in 2018 to 1,809 in 2019, with the biggest increases coming from Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan and Texas. Several states, including New York and Ohio, saw sharp declines last year.
Veteran child welfare researcher David Finkelhor said the year-to-year increase in 2019 is “small overall” and “does not deserve a lot of focus,” but that the longer trend is concerning.
“The frustrating part is that we have not been able to bring down the fatality rate, which is one of the big goals of the child protection system,” said Finkelhor, who directs the Crimes Against Children Research Center Family Research Laboratory, based at the University of New Hampshire.
Finkelhor said the decline in maltreatment victims has recently been most pronounced in the area of physical and sexual abuse. In terms of this year’s drop, he said, “it is hard to draw conclusions until we disentangle the trends by different types of abuse and neglect, because they have different sources.”
It does not appear to be for a lack of reports to child maltreatment hotlines. The total referral rate has increased since 2015 from 52.3 per 1,000 children to 59.5, and the rate at which those referrals are screened in for further examination has also increased in the past five years (though it declined by .3 per 1,000 children in between 2018 and 2019).
The Child Maltreatment 2019 report could end up having outsized significance due to the coronavirus pandemic. It is likely that the data from the next two fiscal years will be greatly impacted by the social restraints and emergency policy changes brought on by COVID-19.
“That will make it hard to know what the impact of the pandemic was,” Finkelhor said. “We will need to turn to survey data rather than administrative data like this for the verdict.”
Speaking with Associated Press reporter David Crary upon the release of the report, Johnson and Children's Bureau Associate Commissioner Jerry Milner told him they have seen no evidence of what many have feared during the pandemic: a surge in child abuse masked by a decline in reporting to hotlines, especially by teachers and other school officials.
“We can’t just assume because parents have to spend 24/7 with their kids, that there’s going to be more abuse,” Johnson told Crary.
Milner, who resigned from the Trump administration today, said the tone of the early warnings about a coming wave of maltreatment had "racist underpinnings."