Experts see no proof of child-abuse surge amid COVID-19 pandemic

NEW YORK — When the coronavirus pandemic took hold across the United States in mid-March, forcing schools to close and many children to be locked down in households buffeted by job losses and other forms of stress, many child-welfare experts warned of a likely surge of child abuse.

Fifteen weeks later, the worries persist. Yet some experts on the front lines, including pediatricians who helped sound the alarm, say they have seen no evidence of a marked increase.

Among them is Dr. Lori Frasier, who heads the child-protection program at Penn State’s Hershey Medical Center and is president of a national society of pediatricians specializing in child abuse prevention and treatment.

Frasier said she got input in recent days from 18 of her colleagues across the country and “no one has experienced the surge of abuse they were expecting.”

A similar assessment came from Jerry Milner, who communicates with child-protection agencies nationwide as head of the Children’s Bureau at the federal Department of Health and Human Services. “I’m not aware of any data that would substantiate that children are being abused at a higher rate during the pandemic,” he told The Associated Press.

Still, some experts believe the actual level of abuse during the pandemic is being hidden from view because many children are seeing neither teachers nor doctors, and many child-protection agencies have cut back on home visits by caseworkers.

“There’s no question children are more at risk — and we won’t be able to see those children until school reopens,” said Marci Hamilton, a University of Pennsylvania professor who heads CHILD USA, a think tank seeking to prevent child abuse and neglect.

Several states said calls to their child-abuse hotlines dropped by 40% or more, which they attributed to the fact that teachers and school nurses, who are required to report suspected abuse, no longer had direct contact with students.

“While calls have gone down, that doesn’t mean abuse has stopped,” said Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, which reported a 50% drop in hotline calls.

Comprehensive data on abuse during the pandemic won’t be available for many months, according to Milner.

And whatever the current level of abuse, there’s no question some of it is horrific.

Georgia Boothe of Children’s Aid, a private agency that provides some of New York City’s foster care services, said some of the children now entering the system were brought in by police officers investigating domestic violence reports.

“The level of severity in some of those cases is unreal,” she said.

Frasier, the Pennsylvania-based pediatrician, said some of her colleagues documented a sharp increase in shaken baby syndrome and children’s head injuries during the 2008 recession, which they attributed at least partly to economic stress.

“With the pandemic, we saw the high jobless rates, the layoffs, and we thought ‘OK, now we’re in for it again,’” she said.

She and others have noted some changes during the pandemic — for example, more accidental injuries from burns, falls and mishaps on farms. What they have not seen is a surge of child abuse.

Frasier has a couple of guesses as to why — a protective effect in households where multiple people were locked down together and federal financial aid that eased the stress on some vulnerable families.

In Nashville, Tennessee, Dr. Heather Williams says she and her colleagues who specialize in child-abuse pediatrics were braced for a pandemic-fueled surge, based on the experiences of 2008. Now she wonders if the recent infusion of federal unemployment assistance may have helped ward off such an increase.

“We’d be really excited if we’re wrong,” she said.

At the Children’s Bureau, Milner says he’s gratified that child protection is deemed a high priority during the pandemic, but he was troubled by the tone of some of the early warnings. He suggested that some had “racist underpinnings” — unfairly stereotyping low-income parents of color as prone to abusive behavior.

“To sound alarm bells, because teachers aren’t seeing kids every day, that parents are waiting to harm their kids — it’s an unfair depiction of so many parents out there doing the best under very tough circumstances,” he said.

One of Milner’s top aides, special assistant David Kelly, noted that in normal times a large majority of calls to child-abuse hotlines don’t trigger investigations.

"We know that the majority of findings of child maltreatment are for neglect, not physical abuse or exploitation, and we know that there are strong associations between neglect and challenges associated with poverty,” Kelly wrote in a June 12 article in the Chronicle of Social Change.

“If we take a closer look … we might be able to see the depth of resiliency that is present and the remarkable efforts poor parents make to get by on the smallest fraction of what many of us have.”

Concerns about children’s well-being amid the pandemic extend beyond physical abuse. There are worries about children missing vaccinations as their parents skip visits to doctors’ offices.

For children with internet access, weeks away from school have increased the risk of online sexual exploitation, according to Dr. Elizabeth Letourneau. She heads the Johns Hopkins Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse.

However, Letourneau is encouraged by one recent trend — more older children are calling hotlines themselves to report exploitation and abuse.