Child Advocates Concerned Neglect, Abuse Might Be Going Unreported During Pandemic

Records show a decline of almost 50% in child protective service calls this spring in Virginia, Maryland and DC

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School closures and stay-at-home policies have contributed to a major reduction in tips to child protective services about possible neglect and abuse, according to an investigation by the News4 I-Team.

State and District of Columbia records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show a decline of nearly 50 percent in the child protective service calls received this spring in Virginia, Maryland and D.C.

The reduction raises concerns that neglectful and abusive treatment of children is going unreported and underscores a consequence of children being physically separated from teachers, coaches, club leaders and other trained reporters of potential abuse. 

The reduction in reports made to child protective services in Maryland was sharp between February and April, the I-Team found. The state reported screening 1,875 child protective services reports in February, then 1,480 in March and 686 in April, after strict stay-at-home policies were implemented in the state.

In the District, child protective service calls dropped from 527 in February to 252 in April.

Virginia data reviewed by the I-Team showed an approximately 50 percent decline in the same time period.

“Most of our calls for D.C. and for every child welfare agency across the country typically come from school personnel," said Brenda Donald, director of the DC Child and Family Services Agency. “When kids are not in school, those reports drop way down."

Donald said D.C. officials have been reaching out to neighborhood and community groups, urging them to help by checking on the well-being of kids and being mindful of any signs of neglect or need among children in the community.

Local child protective services agencies said calls have increased, at least moderately, since spring. But declines in calls from summer 2019 to summer 2020 persisted, the I-Team found.   

The reduction in tips comes amid concerns actual abuse might be increasing. Stop Child Abuse Now of Northern Virginia, a leading child advocacy organization, said the strains of the pandemic could fuel neglect or abuse in homes.

“We all understand that it’s stressful to be isolated at home. There are stresses of job loss, a lack of respite for parents and the children are at home,” said SCAN Northern Virginia Director Leah Fraley.

“Most of our calls for D.C. and for every child welfare agency across the country typically come from school personnel. When kids are not in school, those reports drop way down."

Brenda Donald, director of the DC Child and Family Services Agency

A spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Social Services said the agency has acknowledged there are potential gaps in the reporting of suspected abuse.

“We continue to meet and strategize with our partners ways to address gaps and risks through leveraging family, community and agency strengths,” she said.

School teachers and administrators are mandatory reporters of suspected child mistreatment, but also trained to spot symptoms of neglect. Though students are still visible in some cases in virtual classrooms, local school systems do not have a requirement that all students use their cameras. In those cases, children remain shielded from the view of educators.

Child safety advocates said virtual classes and Zoom meetings do offer some opportunities for adults to check on the well-being of children.

Diane Cranley, author of “8 Ways to Create Their Fate: Protecting the Sexual Innocence of Children,” said teachers are getting a rare look inside some children’s homes. Teachers can detect if there is no parent at home, as younger kids attend classes. They can also see signs of household dangers or bruising on children. Cranley said educators or other adults can also monitor for behavioral changes in children with whom they meet virtually.

“Is there a child dramatically losing weight, exhausted, who seems stressed, those kinds of things,” she said.

To report potential child abuse, visit these sites:

Reported by Scott MacFarlane, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Steve Jones.

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