Do Pandemic School Closures Increase Risk of Unreported Child Abuse?

By Kieran Loughney

The loud laughs were so unexpected that, for a moment, I could not remember my next line. Playing a put-upon father of a bride-to-be on her wedding day, I pressed on and, to my astonishment, I got more laughs and a standing ovation at the play’s end. As a scrawny, self-conscious 15-year-old, this kind of affirmation was completely new and it sure felt good. We have all had a teacher who went beyond the lesson plans. For me he was Jim Hopkins, my high school English and drama instructor. Mr. Hopkins saw a quiet but well-spoken kid with a sense of humor, and by challenging and guiding me he boosted my confidence and helped me understand the power of the spoken and written word.

SCHOOL CLOSURES may place mistreated children at greater risk. Photo credit: M. Pavese.

Charlie (not his real name) was also lucky to have a teacher who did more than teach. Two decades ago, as a new child welfare worker, I met five-year-old Charlie after his teacher, Miss Rose, spotted Charlie’s bruised cheek and asked him (privately) about the injury. “My dad got mad at me last night,” he told her. After she reported the possible abuse, other injuries were discovered by the school nurse, and child welfare was called. Charlie then had a team of professionals to ensure his safety. He was placed in the care of foster parents. Twenty years later he bumped into me while walking on the street. “I have a business degree and I’m working toward marketing my own products,” he said, excitedly.

Many schools in New York City have closed and reopened several times since the pandemic began. We’ve seen stories of teachers, students, and families who are struggling to continue teaching and learning. Less commonly mentioned are the risks the pandemic poses for child victims of in-home abuse and neglect. According to studies by the U.S Administration for Children and Families, the increased economic pressure and isolation families endure in difficult times contribute to the stress factors associated with child abuse (as well as other domestic violence). According to the Centers for Disease Control, in a typical year one in seven kids in the United States may experience abuse or neglect, three quarters of whom are harmed by their parents. Thankfully, 47 states have laws requiring teachers, principals, and daycare workers to alert authorities of evidence of mistreatment or negligence. In recent months, data shows a decrease in reports of abuse, likely because children have spent less time in the classroom under a teacher’s supervision. Bessy Matute, a child protective specialist supervisor with the New York Administration for Children’s Services states, “Most of our cases are disclosed by mandated reporters from school staff. It is concerning to us because we know child abuse and neglect is happening, but maybe children are not having contact with mandated reporters.” 

Good teachers do more than facilitate academics; they help children grow into productive members of society and, in some cases, can be essential to a child’s very survival. Online learning may serve students academically during school interruptions, but remote learning is no substitute for in-person encounters with school staff, such as Charlie’s teacher, who are trained to recognize evidence of abuse. Schools are more than a place for childhood friendships, hot lunches, and learning math and reading. A former colleague of mine working in child welfare estimates that prior to the pandemic, 80 percent of referrals of abuse cases came directly from schools. 

A new appreciation for essential workers, including teachers, has been one of the upsides of the pandemic. It was my good fortune to have Mr. Hopkins’ guidance in school. I’m grateful for the many teachers who, in addition to all their other contributions, keep a protective eye on the most vulnerable children in their classrooms. If you have reason to suspect a child is being abused or mistreated, contact New York’s Child Abuse Hotline immediately at 1-800-342-3720. 

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