The Covid-19 lockdown has induced a child-abuse crisis around the United States, including in New York City. Children are not attending school or participating in extracurricular activities, and they’re visiting doctors’ offices less often for regular appointments, giving adults far fewer opportunities to notice when they’re being mistreated. According to the most recent numbers from the Administration for Children’s Services, reports of abuse and neglect in the city were down 51 percent from the same period last year. “In the first eight weeks of spring 2019,” the New York Times reported, “New York City’s child welfare agency received an average of 1,374 cases of abuse or neglect to investigate each week. In the same period this year, that number fell to 672.”
Some parents’ advocates see a bright side to this. Writing in Slate, Shanta Trivedi, a clinical teaching fellow at the University of Baltimore School of Law, explains that most reports to child protective services regard neglect, not abuse. “Many families are considered ‘neglectful’ primarily because they are in poverty,” she claims, a canard widely held among advocates. “Mandatory reporters, neighbors, relatives, friends, and ex-partners all regularly make calls to child welfare hotlines, sometimes based on valid concerns, but often based on judgments or assumptions about parenting and poverty.” Like many advocates, Trivedi believes that Children’s Protective Services is regularly making a big deal out of, and even removing children needlessly for, parental behaviors that could be solved with more money and understanding.
In fact, big differences exist between kids who grow up in poverty and kids who are reported for neglect. In a paper released earlier this year, Sarah Anne Font of Penn State and Kathryn Maguire-Jack of the University of Michigan looked at life outcomes ranging from high school graduation to early pregnancy and imprisonment for almost 30,000 individuals born between 1993 and 1996 in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin. They compared “individuals with CPS-investigated neglect, abuse, or both abuse and neglect in early childhood or adolescence to those who experienced poverty but not CPS involvement.” They found that “children with alleged or confirmed neglect were statistically significantly worse in all domains than impoverished children without maltreatment allegations, and similar to children with alleged or confirmed abuse.”
In fact, the evidence suggests that neglect reports are more often the result of drug and alcohol use by parents than family impoverishment. In 2018, substance abuse was listed as a factor in 36 percent of neglect cases. Another 5 percent listed alcohol abuse. And 14 percent cited a caretaker’s “inability to cope,” often a sign of substance abuse, mental-health issues, or both. These numbers likely undercount the problem, since investigators don’t always add substance abuse to notes after an initial investigation.
Nevertheless, Trevidi hopes that “neighbors, relatives, and passersby are also thinking more carefully about reporting ‘neglect’ by people who are struggling financially, because [during the pandemic] they might be struggling as well.” In other words, adults concerned about the well-being of a child may themselves be poor because of the recession, so they will learn to keep their mouths shut. This doesn’t seem like something to hope for.
An article for the Marshall Project on criminal justice cites the work of Jane Spinak, a Columbia Law School family-law expert, who wrote that before the pandemic, state child-protection agencies were investigating “hunches, vague suspicions, better-safe-than-sorry beliefs” as well as what the article calls “false reports often having to do with families simply being poor.” Now that all those excess reports are gone, the Marshall article optimistically notes, “poor parents of color are being monitored and investigated less.” In the spirit of never letting a crisis go to waste, those who believed child welfare was needlessly bothering parents whose only problem was financial now want to cut back on investigations even more. They hope that CPS will “respond only to severe abuse cases while creating an entirely separate, less punitive system for calls that come in about forms of neglect arising from poverty, such as hunger and homelessness.” Some states, like Pennsylvania, already have this dual-track system for reports.
The creation of a separate system to account for neglect doesn’t mean that children are in any less danger, however. In 2017, more than three-quarters of the child maltreatment fatalities in the U.S. occurred as a result of neglect, or neglect in combination with other factors. Unsurprisingly, 78 percent involved children three or younger. These are children who need almost constant supervision—to keep them away from the stove, from swallowing small objects, from drowning in bathtubs, from wandering into the street—which is hard enough to provide while sober.
Amid a chorus of experts suggesting that child protective services is overstepping, claiming that children are in danger when they’re not, a new study from the University of Michigan’s Youth Policy Lab found that removing children from homes to foster care has positive long-term benefits—attributable at least in part to a change in parents’ behavior. Looking at “borderline” cases, in which some Michigan caseworkers might have chosen to leave a child in the home with “services” and others would have removed the child, the authors concluded that foster placement “reduced the likelihood of being alleged as a maltreatment victim by 52 percent. Though not all allegations represent actual incidents of abuse or neglect, we find a similar 56 percent reduction in the likelihood of being confirmed as a victim of child maltreatment.”
Parents whose children remained in the home were offered “services,” as were the parents whose children were removed. The difference: in the latter case, the kids got time away from the parents and, perhaps more important, parents got some time away from their children to clean up their acts. If all these families needed was more food or money or a housing voucher, there’s no reason to think that taking their children away would bring a positive result.
The lockdown is isolating abused and neglected children from the eyes of teachers, doctors, and other adults who could raise the red flag that trouble is brewing. The effects of this double neglect on kids at risk of maltreatment are serious, and wishful thinking won’t change it.