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April 17, 2020 by Robert Franklin, JD, Member, National Board of Directors

There’s bad news on the child protection front (KSAT, 4/13/20).  In Texas and across the country, calls to child protective agencies during the COVID-19 crisis have sharply decreased.  By 20% in Texas, by 50% in Wisconsin and elsewhere, reports of child abuse and neglect have dropped precipitously.

And CPS officials aren’t happy about it.  Not one bit.

A perfect storm — that’s what some child abuse prevention advocates are calling the coronavirus pandemic.

For a month now, children at risk of abuse and neglect have been locked in homes with parents ill-equipped to deal with the stress, anxiety, and uncertainty of the virus. Some worry the longer this crisis continues, it will lead to another epidemic of child abuse and neglect cases.

Randy Burton is particularly worried about the impact the health crisis is having on kids who were already living in crisis. The Houston-based attorney, former Harris County prosecutor, and founder of the non-profit Justice For Children fears what’s happening behind closed doors.

“This is a bad situation. It’s open season on these children right now,” Burton said. “We would anticipate that there will be significant increases in (abuse) reports.”

“Open season on these children?”  Really?  Being home with their parents is fraught with peril?  It’s astonishing to see people wringing their hands and making the wildest statements with absolutely no evidence for their claims.  What’s happening “behind closed doors?”  No one knows because the doors are, well, closed.  Burton doesn’t know and neither do I.  But I don’t assume that children are at increased risk of abuse, while Burton and many others take it for granted.

What is unquestionably true is that kids are no longer in school and aren’t allowed to go out publicly to parks, malls, etc. nearly as much as they recently could.  And, since many “mandated reporters” – teachers and other school officials, police officers, etc. - are to be found in those locations, there won’t be as many reports of abuse.  Clearly, that’s no surprise.

Here’s a rundown of where reports to CPS agencies come from nationwide (Richland Source, 4/11/20):

According to www.childwelfare.gov, the most common professional report sources were education personnel (19.4 percent), legal and law enforcement personnel (18.3 percent), social services staff (11.7 percent), and medical personnel (9.6 percent).

The remaining reports were made by nonprofessionals (17.3 percent), such as friends, neighbors, and relatives, or by unclassified reporters (17.0 percent), a category that includes anonymous and unknown reporters.

It’s strange in the extreme that the various opiners on children assume that kids are at increased risk because they’re spending more time with their parents than previously.  In fact, it’s entirely possible that the vast majority of the decrease in calls to CPS agencies are those that didn’t need to be made in the first place.

What none of the articles I’ve read mentions is that, nationwide, 80% of calls reporting suspected abuse or neglect are unfounded.  That’s according to the Administration for Children and Families that collects child abuse data from the states every year.  There are about 3.4 million such reports every year, but under 700,000 of them report actual harm to a child.  Of those, over 70% show neglect, not abuse.  Now, I strongly suspect that, with more parents at home with the kids, neglect of children is significantly lower than it previously was.  How can it be otherwise?  So I suspect that one impact of the virus on children is that they’re being better cared for than before.  

Plus, we can’t forget that mandatory reporters run a huge risk if they see something that might indicate abuse or neglect but fail to report it.  In Texas, it’s a felony to fail to report and that also likely means the loss of employment.  So needless to say, mandatory reporters are highly motivated to call CPS at even the slightest hint of abuse or neglect.  It stands to reason then that they’re responsible for a lot of the over-reporting that plagues the system.

In short, it’s likely that much of the drop-off in reports is due to mandatory reporters not having contact with children and not making reports that don’t need to be made.

But we won’t hear that from the likes of Randy Burton or CPS officials who seem to have a vested interest in keeping the public as alarmed as possible about danger – whether real or imagined – to kids.

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