An annual federal report on child maltreatment confirms what other data has already suggested: That during the first six months of the coronavirus pandemic, reports and investigations of abuse and neglect plummeted, in large part due to the absence of child care workers and school personnel from the lives of many children in that time frame.
But the report also appears to counter the fears that a massive amount of maltreatment might have gone unnoticed as the pandemic forced families into close quarters at a time of great social and economic anxiety. The number of identified victims of abuse and neglect fell, though not as much as reports. The number of child fatalities also declined in 2020, by 4%.
“While the data in today’s report shows a decrease in child maltreatment, there is still work to do,” said Administration for Children and Families Acting Assistant Secretary JooYeun Chang, in a statement released with the Child Maltreatment 2020 report. “One thing hasn’t changed — the vast majority of children come to our attention because of neglect — we must do more to provide services and supports to families before problems, often related to or exacerbated by poverty, become crisis.”
You can access the report by clicking here. The following is a rundown of some critical numbers and a few notes on things that jumped out to Youth Services Insider.
Allegations of Abuse and Neglect
Percent Change: -10%
Reports Screened In for Investigation
Percent Change: -10%
Child Victims of Abuse and Neglect
Percent Change: -6%
Child Abuse/Neglect Fatalities
Percent Change: -4%
The COVID QUARTERS
Anticipating that people would want to get a view of what the immediate COVID-19 impact was on the chain from allegation to confirmed victimization, the report includes a special chapter that charts maltreatment data by fiscal quarters.
This enables a more precise look at how the pandemic impacted things than comparing all of the 2019 report (which covers October 2018 through September 2019) to the 2020 report (covering October 2019 through September 2020). Using the breakouts in Chapter 7, one can isolate and compare March through September 2019 with March through September 2020, the first two fiscal quarters when the pandemic prompted major societal changes.
What jumps out right away in the chapter is that the decline in reports is entirely attributed to lack of contact with school personnel. The number of reports from all other professionals did not change much, and reports from nonprofessionals (family, neighbors, victims, etc) actually went up between July and September of 2020. Here it is in chart form:
The quarterly stats also reveal that the number of child abuse and neglect victims identified in the first two “COVID quarters” is down, when compared to March through September 2019 — from 326,151 to 285,483, a 12% decrease. But comparing screened-in referrals from those two periods, the decrease is far greater: 1,180,537 down to 931,052, a 21% drop.
To recap: the drop in reports was largely fueled by education personnel, who are also the group that have the most reports screened out by the child welfare system. You have the drop in screened-in referrals far outpacing the decline in identified victims. And while nobody really thinks the federal fatality count captures a true picture of that tragedy in any year, there was clearly not an explosion of deaths from abuse and neglect.
It all points to the notion that in the early months of the pandemic, as lockdowns began and schools were closed, there was not the kind of unseen surge in abuse and neglect that some feared.
Physical Abuse Declined the Most
The number of victims for whom physical abuse was confirmed declined by 11% in 2020, whereas the share of victims that experienced sexual abuse dropped by 5%. Cases involving neglect declined by 4%.
Black Child Fatalities Up
While the overall child fatalities number dropped, both the total and the percentage of fatalities involving Black children were up significantly from 2019. There were 504 Black children who died as a result of abuse and neglect, according to the report, up 17%. They made up 35% of all child fatalities, as compared to 29% in 2019.
Youth Services Insider dug into the confirmed victims data to see if there was a corresponding trend there at all, and there is not. Tennessee did not provide victim data, and North Carolina’s is so far out of whack compared to last year that we will set that aside.
In the other 48 states and Washington, D.C., there were 9% fewer Black child victims of maltreatment than there were in 2019. Only six states saw an increase in Black victims, and only two of those have a significant Black population: Illinois (up 10%) and Arkansas (up 20%).
Foster Care Use, and Usage Rate, Both Down
The annual maltreatment report breaks down how many victims of abuse and neglect received foster care as a service, and how many non-victims received foster care (yes, close to a third of all foster care entrants were not deemed to have been maltreated).
The number of children in both groups who went into foster care fell sharply from 2019, down 12% and 16%, respectively. And perhaps more interestingly, the percentage of victims who entered foster care dropped by 9%, suggesting that foster care was used in fewer cases where victims of abuse and neglect were identified. [No change in use for the non-victim group.]
It’s not possible to know this from the federal report, but two possible reasons come to mind as to why this might be the case. First, 2020 was the first full year where at least a few states had tapped into federal funds for foster care prevention under the Family First Prevention Services Act. So more federal dollars were flowing to states to use in-home solutions where foster care might have been used before.
The other is COVID-19. It could be the case that during the early months of the pandemic, some state or county systems were more discerning than usual about which children really needed to be separated from their parents, especially if lockdowns and general fear of the virus were limiting the number of available foster homes.