New data offers a sobering look at how school closures during the pandemic have affected child welfare reporting.

After school buildings closed last school year, the Washington state agency that investigates child abuse and neglect received 87% fewer calls from concerned teachers, counselors and other mandatory school reporters on average per week through June. This school year, reports are down 59%.

The new data from the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) confirms what many educators, families and officials feared: Fewer eyes on children during the pandemic has resulted in fewer reported instances of neglect and abuse. This fits with nationwide trends, which suggests all child maltreatment reporting is down 40-60%.

The numbers hint that maltreatment is going undetected by educators, and officials and experts warn that children are likely experiencing more harm during the pandemic, not less. Evidence from the last economic downturn in the late 2000s, which also wreaked catastrophic harm on many families, offers lessons: Several studies have found that head trauma, especially among infants and children under age 5, increased during and after the recession. 

Today, many families are facing unprecedented financial strain and personal loss, either due to the coronavirus or the stresses that have accompanied life during the pandemic. Parents might also be more prone to substance abuse and may lack access to mental health support, experts say.

“There may even be an increase in underlying severe abuse that we will see as families become more visible to reporters,” said Vickie Ybarra, director of the Office of Innovation, Alignment, and Accountability at DCYF. “The economic pieces of this is what’s going to drive the most severe outcomes for children and families.” 

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The steep drop in maltreatment reports is somewhat unique to educators, who are also mandatory reporters, and are legally required to report suspicions of child abuse or neglect. Reports from other mandatory reporters, such as law enforcement and medical and mental health professionals, also decreased when schools closed; in all, DCYF received about half as many reports in April 2020 as it did in April 2019. But reports from these other mandatory reporters have since moved toward pre-pandemic levels. Reports from teachers and other school staff, however, still lag far behind.

“It just shows what you can detect via online settings compared to being in in-person settings,” said Emiko Tajima, associate professor of social work at the University of Washington and executive director of Partners for Our Children. “Not seeing kids, not having the privacy that teachers normally have with students … is a factor.”

“Kids don’t have that privacy

During a typical school week before the pandemic, DCYF could expect to receive an average of 2,500 reports of child maltreatment. DCYF officials say that about 20% of such reports came from mandatory reporters at schools. In general, educators are more likely to call about instances of neglect than abuse

Reports are cyclical, and decline during the summer and over winter break, when children are out of school. The new DCYF data shows that weekly reports during springtime fell to typical summertime rates. In the weeks preceding school closures, the state received an average of 580 calls per week from mandatory school reporters. After Gov. Jay Inslee ordered schools closed in March, weekly calls dropped to an average of 76. 

The number of calls that were found to be worth investigating also dropped drastically

Ybarra said DCYF noticed the pattern early in the pandemic. School districts were swamped with figuring out the basics: How to feed children who typically receive meals at school, how to provide child care, how to get families connected to the internet. 

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Lost in the mix was face time with teachers, who in regular times serve as trusted confidants. When children are in school, teachers and counselors can take a child aside after class or in the hallway. They can see a child’s body language, or watch how they interact with peers. 

But online, many students keep their cameras off. And some can’t steal a moment of privacy away from family members to voice concerns. 

Marisa Castello, president of the Washington School Counselor Association, said many school districts didn’t have guidelines in the spring for how to confidentially interact with students. Counselors have more tools this fall, she said, and in general, teachers now have more regular interactions with students. 

But privacy, she said, is still a serious barrier.

A few times this school year, teachers have asked her to jump in before an online lesson is dismissed. The teacher will ask a student to hang back while their classmates sign off, giving Castello and the teacher a chance to speak with them privately.

In one instance this school year, “you could tell [the child was] kind of looking over their shoulder and they were talking very carefully,” she said. “I don’t doubt that things are happening or happening more. But many times these kids don’t have that privacy. So if something were going on, they don’t have that space [to express concern] no matter what approach we take.”

Tajima thinks the state should rethink its approach to child welfare, by proactively supporting families via income assistance, mental health services or other resources. 

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“It’s really important to try and shift our thinking to thinking about supporting those families to prevent children from being removed and prevent children from being abused as opposed to being reactive and responsive after the fact,” she said.

These types of resources are particularly important, she added, given the disproportionate number of children of color, particularly Black and American Indian or Alaska Native youth, who are involved with Child Protective Services.

Other indicators

The new DCYF data also looked at other barometers of child well-being: pediatric hospital visits and investigations for serious harms.

The agency investigated fewer incidents involving a serious health concern or domestic violence at the start of the pandemic, but such investigations have now returned to pre-pandemic levels. At the start of the pandemic, fewer children than last year visited the hospital for abuse-related injuries and outpatient emergency services, or for well-child checkups with pediatricians, but those numbers have returned to typical levels.

“It seems almost callous to say this doesn’t look bad because the rates aren’t going up,” Ybarra said. “The numbers are about what they’ve been before [the pandemic]. But the numbers do not appear yet to be any higher.”

Projections for hospital visits over the coming months also aren’t over pre-pandemic levels, Ybarra said. 

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Patrick Dowd, director of the state Office of the Family and Children’s Ombuds, said the data could reflect a “disincentive or a barrier to parents seeking medical care for children,” born out of pandemic-related fear of visiting hospitals or clinics. 

“It could be that children are being injured by assault but they are being treated in the home rather than a parent taking a child in,” he said. 

Dowd said his office, which investigates complaints about DCYF such as concerns about how the agency is handling child welfare or foster care cases, is also receiving fewer reports.