Expert Commentary

COVID-19 school closings and child abuse reports: Research exposes dangerous link

Research suggests school closings amid the coronavirus pandemic have reduced the reporting of child abuse to authorities.

(LaterJay Photography/Pixabay)

Researchers trying to understand how children are affected by school closings amid the coronavirus pandemic have focused largely on student learning and kids’ access to technology and online resources, as has much of the news coverage of the issue. A less studied consequence of school closings is the link between reports of child abuse and students’ interactions with teachers, guidance counselors and other school personnel trained to spot maltreatment.

However, the few papers that have been published so far on the topic, or are forthcoming in academic journals, offer strong evidence that school closings can squash the reporting of child abuse, neglect and abandonment to government authorities. Scholars estimate that more than 200,000 cases of child maltreatment went unreported in the U.S. during the first months after schools closed in early 2020.

One study, published late last year in the Journal of Public Economics, puts the number at 212,500 unreported allegations in March and April 2020 combined. Another study, forthcoming in the journal Child Abuse & Neglect, estimates that 276,293 cases in the U.S. went unreported from March through May.

In early 2020, as states rushed to halt the spread of the new coronavirus, nearly all elementary, middle and high schools closed their campuses and moved instruction online. At the beginning of the fall semester, some schools re-opened their campuses or introduced hybrid instructional models requiring children to complete part of their lessons in person and the rest online.

All over the country, school administrators continue to wrestle with the issue. In responding to COVID-19 outbreaks and other health concerns, authorities in some parts of the U.S. have closed the school buildings they had decided to re-open.  At the same time, authorities in other areas are considering re-opening schools in response to new research about health risks or pressure from parents and other members of their communities.

Meanwhile, President Joe Biden has promised to reopen most school campuses serving kids in kindergarten through the eighth grade — even if it’s only one day a week — during his first 100 days in office. Earlier today, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a new report offering updated guidance on reopening schools.

Child abuse detection has not been a prominent factor in discussions about opening or closing schools, but should be, write the authors of “Suffering in Silence: How COVID-19 School Closures Inhibit the Reporting of Child Maltreatment.”

They note that many families are dealing with significant stress, including job loss amid the pandemic and difficulty balancing work with overseeing their children’s schooling at home. Prior research has shown that kids in families experiencing financial hardship are more likely to be maltreated.

“When schools are not in session, cases of child maltreatment are more likely to go unnoticed and unreported,” writes the team of researchers from the University of Michigan, Florida State University and Georgia College & State University, who studied school closures and child maltreatment. “While closures may be effective at halting the spread of the disease, policymakers should consider the under-reporting of child maltreatment when evaluating cost-benefit analyses of school reopenings.”

Below, we spotlight four published and forthcoming papers that examine the link between campus closures and the reporting of child abuse, neglect and abandonment. One study looks at an assortment of data collected in a single state — Florida. Two focus on child maltreatment in specific cities — Baltimore and New York City.  The fourth offers a brief overview of what researchers know and don’t know globally about how school closures impact child abuse reports.

Journalists should also check out guides and tip sheets that journalism and child advocacy organizations have created to help newsrooms cover child abuse accurately and sensitively. For example, Sarah Welliver, a former journalist who is now public information officer for the Utah Division of Child and Family Services, offers tips in a recent article she wrote for the Poynter Institute. The Center for Injury Prevention and Control has produced a 12-page guide that includes a list of questions to ask local experts.


Suffering in Silence: How COVID-19 School Closures Inhibit the Reporting of Child Maltreatment
E. Jason Baron, Ezra G. Goldstein and Cullen T. Wallace. Journal of Public Economics, October 2020.

In this paper, researchers look at changes in child maltreatment cases immediately after schools in Florida closed on March 16, 2020. They estimate that 15,000 fewer allegations of abuse, neglect or abandonment were reported in March and April 2020 than would be expected, based on an analysis of historical reporting trends. That represents a 27% drop in total reports during that period.

“Scaling up our estimates to the entire U.S. translates to 212,500 unreported allegations,” write the authors.

Another key finding: The decline in Florida maltreatment cases largely was driven by school closures and reductions in the number of school personnel trained to spot it.

The researchers gathered data on allegations of child abuse, neglect or abandonment reported to the state Department of Children and Families from any of Florida’s 67 counties from January 2004 to April 2020. During that time, each county received, on average, about 330 allegations of child maltreatment each month. Researchers looked at how allegation reports changed after schools closed in early 2020, comparing that with changes in report numbers during the summer months, when schools generally are not in session, and in March and April of other years.

Researchers also collected data on school finances and staffing to examine changes in the number of personnel trained to detect and report maltreatment — for example, teachers, guidance counselors, school nurses and school social workers.

“We show that counties with previously higher numbers of staff trained to identify and report child maltreatment (e.g., school psychologists and school nurses) experience a disproportionately larger reduction in the number of child maltreatment allegations in March and April 2020,” they write.

They also note that while school personnel are the main source of child maltreatment reports, school closures might not be the sole reason report numbers fell in early 2020.

“The dramatic decline of social interactions resulting from official stay-at-home orders and voluntary sheltering in place likely limited the exposure of children to a wide range of potential reporters of child maltreatment such as law enforcement personnel, pediatricians, and extended family members,” they write.

Increased Proportion of Physical Child Abuse Injuries at a Level I Pediatric Trauma Center During the COVID-19 PandemicMark L. Covler; et al. Child Abuse & Neglect, forthcoming.

For this study, researchers look at changes in the number of children treated for traumatic injuries at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, a Level 1 trauma center and regional burn center located in Baltimore, after Maryland ordered its schools childcare facilities closed in 2020. A main finding: The number of patients treated for physical injuries resulting from child abuse was significantly higher from March 28, 2020 to April 27, 2020 than it had been during the same period in 2018 and 2019. The research team, from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, focused on children under age 15.

During the 2020 study period, the children’s center treated eight patients with child abuse injuries — 13% of all trauma patients. The prior year, it treated four patients with child abuse injuries, representing 4% of trauma patients, and in 2018, it treated three patients, or 3% of trauma patients. The researchers learned that 75% of child abuse patients were Black, 25% were white and 75% of these children had public health insurance. In 2020, the median age of patients with child abuse-related injuries is 11.5 months.

Prior research indicates quarantines, social isolation and school closures are associated with increased mistreatment of children, the researchers note. They also write that their study suggests a similar pattern for young children when child care facilities close.  “In the case of Covid-19, this is likely due to increased exposure to perpetrators of violence against children in the home as well as restricted access to safe alternative childcare arrangements,” they write. “As families struggle to replace reliable professional and informal childcare arrangements, children may be placed under the supervision of less capable caregivers for longer periods of time, which may increase the risk of physical child abuse.”

Reporting of Child Maltreatment During the SARS-CoV-2 Pandemic in New York City from March to May 2020
Eli Rapoport, Hailey Reisert, Emily Schoeman and Andrew Adesman. Child Abuse & Neglect, forthcoming.

In this paper, researchers estimate that 7,783 cases of child abuse and neglect went unreported in New York City in March, April and May of 2020. They also used data collected from the city’s Administration for Children’s Services to generate a national estimate, finding that about 276,293 allegations of child maltreatment went unreported in the U.S. during those three months.

The researchers find that about 29% fewer allegations were reported in New York City in March 2020 than their analysis predicted, based on historical trends. In April and May 2020, authorities in New York City received about half as many reports as the analysis indicates they should have received.

The paper’s authors look at the number of child abuse or neglect allegations the city’s Administration for Children’s Services received each month from January 2015 to May 2020. They also look at the number of Child Protective Services investigations conducted during that period. Based on seasonal and longitudinal patterns, the researchers estimated the number of reports that went unreported in New York City in March, April and May of 2020 — the first three months of widespread social distancing and school closures in the state.

Violence Against Children in the Time of COVID-19: What We Have Learned, What Remains Unknown and the Opportunities That Lie Ahead
Henrietta H. Fore. Child Abuse & Neglect, October 2020.

This report offers a quick overview of what’s known and unknown about how children around the world have been affected by various types of violence amid the coronavirus pandemic. “Researchers across the globe are attempting to find out how the health and socioeconomic crisis brought about by the coronavirus is affecting children’s exposure to violence,” writes Henrietta H. Fore, the executive director of UNICEF, which collects data on the lives and experiences of children worldwide. “Findings are beginning to emerge, pointing to increased risks for victimization as well as changes in the demand for and delivery of services.”

Fore points out that researchers have found “widespread interruptions in the reporting and referral mechanisms of child protection services.” An estimated 1.8 billion kids worldwide live in countries where the pandemic has disrupted violence prevention and response efforts, according to UNICEF. Fore also notes some countries are changing the way they offer services to better help children.

“In Malaysia, for example, social work practice is being adapted through greater use of phone and virtual contact to identify and assess children and families at risk, provide psychosocial support and assist families to manage stress and mental health,” she writes. “Officials in Australia have noted rises in cyberbullying complaints. In turn, the country has strengthened the portal for online child protection to respond to specific COVID-19 related risks.”

Looking for more on school closings? We highlight research on how student behavior can limit their effectiveness amid a disease outbreak and offer tips for reporting on how COVID-19 school closings affect student learning

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