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Preventing Child Abuse Is Paramount, But Not a Reason to Open Schools


by Mical Raz & Frank Edwards - September 14, 2020

As the start of the academic year approaches, schools across the nation are struggling to find an acceptable balance between providing much-needed in-person education, alongside the imperative to prevent further spread of COVID-19. This spring, more than 50 million schoolchildren abruptly found themselves outside the classroom. There is broad agreement that enabling children to return safely to schools is of utmost importance, both in terms of children’s academic and emotional development. These decisions also have profound economic implications; an estimated 27 million American adults rely on the school system for childcare in order to participate in the workforce.

Unfortunately, debates over returning schoolchildren to physical classrooms have been marred by evidence-free proclamations and politicization, with many policymakers explicitly  or downplaying scientific guidance.


There are no public health experts who discount the importance of schools to child development or the economy. The salient questions to address are not whether schools are important, but rather under what conditions of community spread is it reasonable to open schools, and what risk-mitigation measures can and should schools be advised to implement.


Yet that is often not the discussion being elevated by policymakers. Recently, the CDC published a document that argues for the importance of reopening schools, an argument that fundamentally has no detractors. Schools are universally accepted as important. However, we argue, their importance is not as sites of surveillance and reporting of child abuse, and there is no evidence that school closures impede efforts to safeguard children from maltreatment.


REPORTING CHILD ABUSE


The CDC as well as other organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, have called attention to the importance of schools as sites of detection and reporting of child abuse. Since early in the pandemic, there have been numerous articles noting lower rates of reporting of suspected child abuse and neglect, and widespread concern that abuse is rampant, yet undetected.

 

While reports have dropped, it is important to note that a majority of calls to protective services involve concerns for neglect rather than for physical or sexual abuse. Neglect is all too often conflated with poverty, and struggling parents find themselves dealing not only with economic hardship, but with the extra burden of a child welfare investigation (Raz, 2020). In a country where an estimated one out of every third child is the subject of a child welfare investigation, and amongst African American children the rates are one out of every two, a decrease in calls to protective services does not equate increased harm to children (Kim et al., 2017). Contact with the child welfare system can be traumatic, and may constitute a harm in itself (Roberts, 2011).


Nationally, in 2018, amongst reports received that were screened-in for further investigation, under 17% of children were found to be victims of maltreatment. Furthermore, since the 1990s, neglect as the primary category of maltreatment has steadily increased, which is often an indicator primarily of poverty and lack of resources. This rise in neglect-related referrals is directly correlated with profound cuts to income support and other social welfare services.


As multiple studies have shown, more reporting does not keep children safer (Raz, 2017; Ho et al., 2017).


SCHOOLS ARE SITES OF INCREASED DISPROPORTIONATE SURVEILLANCE


Furthermore, poor, Black, and Indigenous families are disproportionately targeted by reports, often for manifestations of poverty (Edwards, 2019). For low-income families accustomed to the scrutiny of child welfare investigations, the pandemic brought about an unexpected silver lining. CPS agents are “not opening my refrigerator. They’re not opening my dresser drawers,” noted one mother, in relief. For some mothers, a fear of CPS involvement leads to reduced engagement with systems of support, disadvantaging poor families even further (Fong, 2019).  An overwhelming majority of investigations do not result in the provision of new services, leaving families no better off.  


In 2018, teachers and other education personnel filed approximately 850,000 reports of suspected child maltreatment, more than any other class of reporter (about 20% of all screened-in cases). Ninety percent of these teacher-originated reports did not result in a confirmed case of child maltreatment, and neglect was the most common allegation (Children’s Bureau, 2019).


Public attention has rightly focused on how spurious calls to police endanger the lives of Black people. It is worth paying similar attention to the harms caused by excessive reports to CPS that neither result in enhanced safety to children, nor in the provision of services. Such reports may result in traumatic separations of children from their families into the foster care system (Yi et al., 2020).


In today's child welfare system, the overwhelming majority of reports are unsubstantiated, many are related to material need, and few cases result in the provision of services. We should not assume that the decrease in reporting resulting from pandemic-related school closures renders children less safe. In fact, when overstretched case workers are no longer called to investigate a glut of reports that are unlikely to be substantiated, they have more resources to work with families with children at risk of imminent harm. Prior studies have shown that substantiation rates decrease with increased reports, suggesting that overburdened systems cannot effectively detect children in need of immediate intervention (Besharov, 2005).


IS SEVERE PHYSICAL ABUSE INCREASING?


There is indeed reason for concern that the pandemic will result in an increase in physical and sexual abuse of children. Children at home, in crowded quarters, alongside overstressed adults who are experiencing economic strife, joblessness, food insecurity, social isolation, amidst pressing health concerns; this could create the perfect storm. Prior research has shown that economic downturns are associated with an increase in physical abuse of children (Wood et al., 2016). Anecdotal accounts by clinicians have suggested such an increase. However, preliminary analyses of data portray a more reassuring picture.


Still there is reason for real concern for the safety of vulnerable children.


HOW SHOULD WE PREVENT CHILD ABUSE?


Amidst this crisis, physicians and public health experts should advocate for proven measures that enhance the safety of children and reduce rates of maltreatment. Such measures include economic supports for families during times of crisis (Raissian & Bullinger, 2017), ensuring children are fed and clothed, and drawing on the success of home visitation programs to provide services, even remotely. If schools are closed, providing childcare support to working parents will offer respite and support for working families, particularly for children of essential workers.

 

Reopening schools is of utmost societal importance. However, this should only be attempted when community spread is minimized, a situation which most states currently have not been able to attain. Harnessing the threat of child abuse as an argument to prematurely open schools may wreak further harm on disadvantaged and minority communities that are already experiencing higher rates of morbidity and mortality from this pandemic. Providing appropriate educational services as well as preventing child maltreatment should both be approached in a measured, evidence-based manner to minimize the disruptive effects of current politicization.


References


Besharov, D. J. (2005). Overreporting and underreporting child abuse and neglect are twin problems. In D. R. Loseke, R. J. Gelles, & M. M. Cavanaugh (Eds.), Current controversies on family violence (285–298). SAGE Publications.


Children's Bureau, Administration On Children, Youth, And Families, Administration For Children And Families, U.S. Department Of Health And Human Services (2019). National child abuse and neglect data system (NCANDS) child file, FFY 2017 [Dataset]. National Data Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect.


Edwards, F. (2019). Family surveillance: Police and the reporting of child abuse and neglect. RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, 5(1), 50–70.


Fong, K. (2019). Concealment and constraint: Child protective services fears and poor mothers' institutional engagement. Social Forces, 97(4), 1785–1809.


Ho, G. W., Gross, D. A., & Bettencourt, A., (2017). Universal mandatory reporting policies and the odds of identifying child physical abuse. American Journal of Public Health, 107(5), 709–716.


Kim, H., Wildeman, C., Jonson-Reid, M., & Drake, B. (2017). Lifetime prevalence of investigating child maltreatment among U.S. children. American Journal of Public Health, 107(2), 274–280.


Raissian, K. M., & Bullinger, L. R. (2017). Money matters: Does the minimum wage affect child maltreatment rates? Children and Youth Services Review, 72, 60–70.


Raz, M. (2017). Unintended consequences of expanded mandatory reporting laws. Pediatrics, 139(4).


Raz, M. (2020) Calling child protectives services is a form of community policing that should be used appropriately: Time to engage mandatory reporters as to the harmful effects of unnecessary reports. Children and Youth Services Review, 110.


Roberts, D. E. (2011). Prison, foster care, and the systemic punishment of black mothers. UCLA Law Review, 59.


Wood, J. N., French, B., Fromkin, J., Fakeye, O., Scribano, P. V., Letson M. M., … Berger, R. (2016). Association of pediatric abusive head trauma rates with macroeconomic indicators. Academic Pediatrics, 16(3), 224–32.


Yi, Y., Edwards, F. R., & Wildeman, C. (2020). Cumulative prevalence of confirmed maltreatment and foster care placement for U.S. children by race/ethnicity, 2011–2016. American Journal of Public Health, 110, 704–709.





Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 14, 2020
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23431, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 5:23:10 PM

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About the Author
  • Mical Raz
    University of Rochester
    E-mail Author
    MICAL RAZ, M.D., Ph.D., MSHP, is the Charles E. and Dale L. Phelps Professor in Public Policy and Health at the University of Rochester and a practicing hospitalist at Strong Memorial Hospital.
  • Frank Edwards
    Rutgers University
    E-mail Author
    FRANK EDWARDS, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University.
 
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