Student Well-Being What the Research Says

Child Abuse Cases Got More Severe During COVID-19. Could Teachers Have Prevented It?

By Sarah D. Sparks — June 01, 2021 3 min read
Image of a sad girl in the shadows

If teachers see signs of child abuse, they have both a professional duty and a legal obligation to report it, to ensure children get help. A year of extreme family stress coupled with more remote learning has highlighted how damaging it can be when teachers can’t fulfill that safeguard role.

University of California, Irvine, researchers found that reported cases of suspected child abuse in one large, unnamed county in the Golden State fell during the pandemic—but the severity of actual child abuse cases rose over that time. And teachers and other adults at schools made up the biggest hole in the safety net for children during this time.

The pandemic shutdowns and widespread economic instability since early spring 2020 raised parental stress; caused strain on family budgets; forced families to crowd together for quarantines, telecommuting, and remote schooling; and limited social and mental health supports for parents.

The researchers studied monthly reports of suspected maltreatment from county social services from March to December in 2019 and 2020, and compared these data to data in the same periods from county child abuse clinic medical evaluations, which are conducted when suspected abuse is considered severe enough that a child needs a doctor’s examination and potential treatment.

From 2019 to 2020, the total reports of suspected child abuse fell more than 24 percent during the period from March to December, from more than 25,400 to about 19,300, and the number of children suspected of being mistreated fell nearly 29 percent, from more than 33,000 to just over 23,600.

While reported abuse dropped, the confirmed evidence of abuse rose by 30 percent from 2019 to 2020, based on clinic medical reports during that time. The proportion of suspected child abuse cases that were considered severe enough to need medical evaluations and intervention rose from 10 percent before the pandemic to 17 percent during it.

“By the time children are identified, the abuse they have suffered is more severe than it otherwise would have been,” said Stacy Metcalf, a clinical research coordinator at the University of California, San Francisco, and a doctoral researcher at U.C. Irvine, in a presentation on the study at the Association for Psychological Science virtual conference last week.

Teacher observations needed

Mandated reporters in schools and day-care facilities made up a third of all those who reported suspected abuse during the study in 2019, but that percentage fell by more than half in 2020, to only 16.4 percent. Police, social workers, and even people such as neighbors, who were not required to report, became more likely to be the ones to spot suspected child abuse.

One reason for the dropoff in reports was that teachers and others at schools simply had less contact with students overall, due to school closures and remote classes. Child abuse reporting generally dips during the summer, when children already have less contact with teachers and other mandated reporters in schools, and researchers found that summer showed a smaller—though still significant—difference in reporting from the summer of 2019 to 2020.

Some of the signs of child abuse that teachers are trained to look for—including social isolation and poor hygiene—became hard to differentiate during the pandemic, and actual bruises became much easier to cover up in video conferences than classes.

As schools reopen, Metcalf expects an “exponential increase” in the number of families and students identified as needing support services related to abuse and neglect. States such as Delaware have started to change their mandated-reporter training to add more clarification of the signs of abuse and neglect that can show up in remote classes, such as self-harming behavior, defensive behavior toward adults, and signs of neglect in the home.

Teachers and administrators can also improve lines of communication for students. For example, in a randomized controlled trial just before the pandemic, the national child abuse prevention group Childhelp’s Speak Up Be Safe curriculum significantly increased secondary students’ understanding of potentially abusive situations at home and on campus and how to reach out to adults who can help them at school.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 09, 2021 edition of Education Week as Child Abuse Cases Got More Severe During COVID-19. Could Teachers Have Prevented It?

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