Since schools across the United States closed in March, reports of child abuse and neglect have plummeted. Pennsylvania and Ohio, for instance, have seen at least a 50 percent drop in calls made to state hotlines, while some hospitals have reported an increase in cases of severe child abuse showing up in emergency rooms. This is not surprising, because teachers are leading reporters of abuse—their calls represent more than a fifth of the 2018 total—and it’s hard to keep an eye on kids through occasional Zoom meetings.
Beyond trying to publicize hotlines and other resources for help, though, most state and local officials seem to have no strategy other than waiting until the lockdown is over to assess the damage. Last month, Los Angeles County sheriff Alex Villanueva proposed to let his deputies become more proactive, releasing a plan to “do welfare checks on our most at-risk kids with patrol personnel.” Following the death of Gabriel Fernandez in 2013—deputies were found to have ignored clear signs that he was being tortured to death—the department may have learned an important lesson.
The proposal hit a roadblock when Bobby Cagle, head of the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services, explained that “sending a uniformed law enforcement officer to a family’s home without any articulable suspicion of child abuse or neglect would not necessarily improve safety for children.” He said that “such an action might increase stress on families and children, especially those in already marginalized communities, during one of the most stressful times most have ever experienced.” A little extra stress may be the price we have to pay, though, for protecting children who have been trapped for months in homes with adults (not just their parents, but abusive boyfriends, for instance), who may have addiction or other mental-health problems.
Cagle’s response “makes me sick,” says Greg McKay, credited with saving Arizona’s child-welfare system during his tenure as its head from 2015 to 2019. McKay, a former homicide detective, calls this the “social worker mindset: When you’re dealing with violent behaviors, we don’t want to put more stress on them.” But this is not the attitude we take toward other kinds of domestic abuse, let alone other violent offenses. Social workers’ view that law enforcement deals with these issues heavy-handedly ignores not only years of training in community policing but also the long-running partnerships between many child-protection service agencies, including New York City’s, and law enforcement.
Someone surely needs to be knocking on these doors. The longer these kids are in lockdown, the worse it will get. As McKay notes, “With time comes hopelessness and compliance for children. Long periods of isolation and lack of intervention turns into years of this kind of behavior.”
Which kids count as “at-risk” is not always easily determined. Relying on reports that students weren’t checking in with their online schools (as Villanueva’s proposal suggested) is probably not the best way to target interventions. The youngest children—under age six—are most at risk, being least able to seek out help. Children up to three years old made up more than three-quarters of child-maltreatment fatalities in 2017.
Cassie Statuto Bevan, who served on the U.S. Commission to Eliminate Child Fatalities, says that even before the lockdown occurred, social workers were not making the required visits to families in the system, at least according to periodic reports from the Children’s Bureau on state child-welfare systems. Bevan wonders in particular about “maternal health” visits. “What are we doing about the babies who were sent home after the mother tested positive for drugs in her system?”
Indeed, it’s unclear whether Child Protective Services workers are conducting the investigations they’re already required to do under current law. A Colorado lawyer told me last month that she was having trouble getting officials to investigate a child sex-abuse allegation. Bevan says that you can’t do an effective check of families without “putting eyes on the child.” As dangerous as it may be in current circumstances to spend time in a family’s home, she says, you have to sit down with a parent and “ask whether they need access to any food or other benefits.” And, she explains, “you have to look around the house.” When Bevan went on child-welfare visits in Baltimore, she says, “You pick up these cues. How nervous are the parents? Does it seem like they are using drugs?” You have to find out “who is currently living in the household? Why aren’t they there right now?” If CPS either is unwilling or unable to perform the visits that it should be doing, then offers of help from law enforcement should not be turned down.
What about at-risk children not in the system? Sarah Ann Font, a sociologist at Penn State whose research focuses on child maltreatment and the child-welfare system, suggested that CPS or law enforcement perform “checks on families with recently closed cases.” Font notes that “given the super high rates of re-referral, that would be a decent proxy for child safety risks.” A review of 16 studies found that children “maltreated previously were approximately six times more likely to experience recurrent maltreatment than children who had not previously been maltreated.”
Concerns about violating the civil liberties of parents whose cases with CPS have been recently closed are understandable, and there may be no statute allowing such interventions. In that case, legislators may want to consider an emergency law that would permit such visits for as long as lockdowns remain in effect (as long as the rest of the summer, in L.A.’s case). These are, after all, unprecedented times. “You’re safer at home,” Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti likes to say—but as McKay notes, “that’s not true for everyone.”