There is much conjecture regarding child welfare service use during the COVID–19 pandemic due to increased risk of maltreatment, and speculative decreased use of services due to quarantine mandates and social isolation. We conducted this study to investigate impacts from COVID–19 on child maltreatment prevention services. Our research finds that not only are families in New York City not accessing preventive services at the same rate as before stay-at-home-orders, but that families are also accessing these services significantly less. The magnitude of this decrease is non-trivial: rates of new prevention case openings for March 2020 are significantly lower than anticipated based on predictive models, and March 2020’s new case opening count was the lowest observed count of the twenty-four time points spanning January - March 2013 - 2020.
Child maltreatment increases in times of stress (Tobey et al., 2013). This study suggests that families who may newly be in need are not receiving services. New York City ACS reports that their preventive services seek to provide intervention to families at-risk before impairment in the home reaches the level of out-of-home placement. Reduced child maltreatment prevention services may increase the risk of maltreatment escalating to out-of-home removals. Out-of-home removals are linked to juvenile justice involvement and psychological impairment (Kolivoski et al., 2017), among other adverse outcomes, and youth of color are disproportionately negatively impacted (Pryce et al., 2019).
Strengths and Limitations
This is the first study to date that uses empirical data to examine the impact of COVID–19 on child abuse prevention services. In addition, New York was one of the first US states to experience a rapid rise in COVID–19 cases. Most other US states have experienced lagged growth in COVID–19 cases with similarly lagged responses. Thus, New York serves as a useful model and test case for understanding and projecting impacts from COVID–19 on other states. The results in this paper suggest a need for increased outreach to families through novel means to bridge gaps in accessing services.
Given the novelty of this study and the precedent it may set for future research, several limitations are important to note. The sample for this study was gathered from New York City, which is a relatively small sample and is in a unique location. New York City’s population is very diverse when compared to the rest of the United States. Notably, this may lead to a risk of these results not being generalizable to the rest of the country. Additionally, given that data were limited to frequencies of reports, researchers were unable to report information on the circumstances of the child maltreatment prevention services that were reported-leaving gaps in the data specific to identifying geographical location, socioeconomic status, familial circumstances, or the mechanism in which it was reported. These details are important for better identifying families that are still accessing child welfare preventative services in the time of COVID–19. Moreover, it is unclear whether lower numbers of preventative cases are due to staffing barriers and complications related to shelter in place orders and/or to less access of families and youth to mandated reporters and prevention services. Lastly, these data are only representative of the beginning of the “shelter-in-place” order and would be stronger with a longer duration under these circumstances.
Identification.To respond to this crisis, community leaders (e.g., community organizers, faith leaders, school personnel, elected officials) should coordinate with mental health providers and social workers to ensure resources are available that are appropriate both to the needs of their respective communities, and to the unique circumstances of the epidemic. For example, schools should organize virtual check-ins with each individual family to ensure that they are connected to resources. For families they are not able to reach, trusted community leaders can facilitate a coordinated effort of locating and connecting with them. Families that already have a history of abuse or neglect may be particularly susceptible to having children who are not connecting with their teachers or counselors. New ways of identifying child abuse or neglect through remote learning interactions may help teachers identify and refer children and families for social services. Teachers and social workers may need to work closely to connect with students who show warning signs of abuse. Given that many communities may already have limited resources for outreach and resources, social workers can continue to provide virtual check-ins to these families most at risk. Additionally, policymakers should also allocate funds and resources to support the families most in need to reduce the extra stressors due to the COVID–19 pandemic.
Given that schools do not have physical access to their students, communities may benefit by having other essential workers in the community receive training to identify abuse or neglect. Virtual online training for neighbors, grocery clerks, mail delivery personnel, and bank tellers can be utilized as a tool to guide community members in recognizing warning signs of abuse and violence in the home. For example, training employees on the warning signs of abuse for those who interact with families often (e.g., grocery store employees), resources on how to report suspected abuse, and potential resources for families.
Importantly, inequities persist in low-income communities with respect to internet services (DiMaggio & Hargittai, 2001). For this reason, it is recommended that states follow initiatives to provide internet services for communities who may not have access, like initiatives currently in place in New York City (https://www1.nyc.gov/site/acs/about/covidhelp.page). For example, New York City has compiled a list of ways to access cell service and WiFi for low-income families and households with K–12 students. Even in communities where free Internet is offered, there are disparities in which households can access these services (Blume, Kohli, & Esquivel, 2020); local communities should work together to determine how to ensure that this access reaches every household. This is an important step to take for increasing equitable access to maltreatment prevention services, yet additional support helping connect families with these resources is needed through outreach by trained professionals or paraprofessionals
Prevention.Agencies need to consider how to adapt their resources during times of social distancing. Community centers can offer a space, such as online groups, for caregivers to discuss stressors, connect families to resources, and teach potential coping skills. These groups need to be provided in as many languages as possible to offer space to all families. Social media can be used to distribute help line numbers and other resources. Public service announcements on streaming channels, news channels, and social media can disseminate knowledge about substance use disorders and provide information regarding online groups to curb the risk of increased substance use during the epidemic.
Agencies may also need to consider the unique needs of particularly vulnerable communities. Research identifies social support from the LGBTQ community as a protective factor against suicide and mental health issues for LGBTQ youth (Kaniuka et al., 2019). Therefore, resources can be allocated to community centers to encourage maintaining virtual connections among LGBTQ youth and mentors during COVID–19. Youth who find themselves stuck in environments that do not affirm their identity places them at risk for abuse. Therefore, social media can be used to distribute anonymous helpline numbers, and can reaffirm to youth that they are not alone and that there are community members who support them.
Undocumented folks make up another vulnerable group to the impact of COVID–19. Although individuals from undocumented communities are more likely to be classified as essential workers (e.g., agricultural workers, grocery personnel), they are also ineligible for unemployment insurance benefits and disaster relief, such as the CARES Act (Villa, 2020). In California, statewide public and private funding sources have allocated $75 million as a disaster relief fund to support undocumented workers who have lost their jobs or wages during the pandemic (State of California, 2020). Through this $75 million fund, an individual can secure $500 and a household can secure $1,000. Other states can model California’s efforts as a starting point in identifying and supporting undocumented individuals, a critical community who are ineligible for federal relief, and in working to provide support to reduce COVID–19 related economic stress.
Documentation. Given that this type of widespread closure of schools and public spaces is unprecedented, federal and local child welfare agencies should release reports of the allegations, substantiations, and service use. Many areas regularly publish data, such as the monthly reports from New York City and Indiana and the quarterly reports from California (https://www1.nyc.gov/site/acs/about/flashindicators.page; https://www.in.gov/dcs/3197.htm ; https://ccwip.berkeley.edu/). However, it is vital that this information is reported frequently to help investigate national and local trends of child maltreatment. This type of documentation can also support nationwide efforts to identify the potential factors, such as economic problems and social support efforts, that influence both incidents of abuse during a pandemic and the rates of reports to child welfare services.
Given that stressors have increased and usual sources of support for vulnerable families are less accessible during the COVID–19 shutdowns, society runs the risk of an epidemic of child abuse. Results of this study show that child welfare prevention service case openings have significantly decreased, suggesting that these societal disruptions have made a large impact on service access. In the United States, school personnel are the primary source of reports to child welfare services (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services et al., 2018). It appears that now, more than ever, school personnel and teachers may still be the most important mandated reporters in a child’s life; teachers and personnel may need to consider new and different indicators of abuse and neglect that can be identified virtually.
Future research must explore how, while practicing much-needed social distancing measures, people persist in utilizing preventive child welfare services. Individual-level data would help highlight differences in reporting depending on geographic location, demographics, and circumstantial differences of child abuse incidents. Although the current study presents a data-driven model of child welfare preventive services during the COVID–19 pandemic, future researchers should aim to include additional months of the “shelter-in-place” order and expand on these initial findings for stronger results. Additionally, future studies would benefit from examining frequency data from other states in order to make current findings more generalizable to the greater United States population.
Future research on risk factors of families, such as, substance use, stress, emotional burden, and unaddressed mental health needs may lead to widespread recommendations of how communities support families during school closures. Additionally, future research on child maltreatment may also benefit from collecting data from families to identify social supports, resources, and services that can reduce familial stress levels when school closures are in place, particularly when shelter-at-home and social distancing policies are in place. Families may require extra support to transition when shelter-in-place orders have been lifted, and post-crisis support services may be needed. Communities, researchers, and policy makers should act proactively to devise plans and social supports for vulnerable youth to best transition to the changes that will be needed post social distancing measures.
When social distancing has ended, on a national level, we will be at a unique transition period as a country. This period of transition may allow researchers, policy makers, and community organizers to re-conceptualize and improve the effectiveness of child maltreatment prevention, identification, and intervention. Given the current circumstances, if new measures are enacted to help with identification, research can highlight the new mechanisms for reporting and support higher levels of safety for youth during and even after social distancing measures have been lifted.