Massachusetts has seen a roughly 50% drop in reports of suspected child abuse during the COVID-19 pandemic as advocates urge the community to look out for the health of parents and children while maintaining a physical distance.
As coronavirus cases grew in Massachusetts, schools closed their doors and people started to stay at home. At the same time, reports of alleged child abuse or neglect to the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families began to drop.
Comparing the week ending May 5 to the week ending March 7 – prior to the statewide stay at home order – there was a 47% decrease in intakes of reports of child abuse or neglect, according to recent DCF analysis of data.
Certain professions, including teachers, are considered mandated reporters and are obligated to report alleged child abuse or neglect. Other people can also file those reports, known as 51A reports.
Mandated reporters like teachers, as well as health care providers and first responders, typically account for about 80% of the reports DCF receives. The closure of schools during the pandemic is likely the reason for a decline in 51A reports in Massachusetts, as well as for the trend across the country, officials said.
The number of 51A reports by mandated reporters has dropped 54% from mid-March to mid-May this year when compared to the same period last year, according to DCF data.
Anonymous reports and reports from non-mandated people have also declined. In total, 51A reports have dropped by 51% in 2020 compared to the same period last year, per the DCF data.
DCF continues to make in-person contact to check on the safety of children.
“The Department of Children and Families (DCF) relies on mandated reporters such as teachers and physicians, who are required by law to file a report if they suspect a child is being abused or neglected. In recent weeks there has been a slight uptick in reports as social workers continue to respond to emergencies in person and make home visits when serious child safety concerns arise,” said Andrea Grossman, a DCF spokesperson.
“Children are safest when they are visible in the community and, since the onset of these unprecedented circumstances, DCF has been coordinating efforts with our partner child-serving organizations to stay connected with children. Furthermore, DCF’s approach remains consistent with federal guidance, which includes the addition of videoconferencing to maintain contact with children, families, and foster parents,” Grossman continued.
Tammy Mello, the executive director of the Children’s League of Massachusetts, said the trend in Massachusetts mirrors what is being reported across the country.
“What we know through research is that financial stress and social isolation are significant indicators to increase parental stress and that’s what’s happening” during the pandemic, Mello said. “Our biggest concerns right now are how are we making sure that people are communicating with their neighbors and their families and checking in and just trying to really reduce that social isolation. Is there food insecurity? Are people worried about paying their rent? How do we help parents reduce their stress, which we know helps to mitigate child abuse and neglect.”
Mello said everyone should make it their own responsibility to check in with family members, friends and neighbors who are parents. In the case of serious concerns, anyone can make a report to DCF.
During school vacation weeks and summer months, it is common to see a decrease in abuse reports because children aren’t in school, Mello said. Right now, children are facing a roughly six-month period away from school, at least.
“I think it’s really important to note that our expectation is there’s going to be a surge in reports in the fall once kids are back in school,” Mello said. “We really worry about making sure there aren’t cuts that impact those services and supports and, quite frankly, we believe that if people now are reaching out to families we may be able to mitigate that surge.”
In Massachusetts, abuse is defined as any non-accidental act to a child that causes or creates a risk of physical or emotional injury, including sexual contact. Neglect is defined as the failure by a caretaker, either deliberately or through negligence or inability, to provide a child with minimal care.
About 85% of the cases every year are neglect cases, according to Maria Mossaides, the director of the Office of the Child Advocate.
Mossaides said that advocates and law enforcement are all concerned that the pandemic means there are situations harmful to children that are staying under the radar.
“Just like during snowstorms we ask people to reach out and check on their elderly neighbors, I think it’s very appropriate to say we need for the community at large to protect our children,” said Mossaides, who urged community groups and organizations to check in with their local families. “Obviously we need to maintain the social distancing … but at the same time, we also want there to be some attempt to make sure that if there are some situations, that they come to the attention to the Department of Children and Families.”
The heads of the Massachusetts Children’s Alliance, Massachusetts Office for Victim Assistance (MOVA) and Children’s League of Massachusetts, in issuing a joint call to the public for help detecting possible abuse, said some signs of abuse include:
- Physical appearance: signs of bruises, marks, injuries, hygiene, or attire
- Environment: signs of violence, drug and alcohol abuse, or family dysfunction
- Behavior and affect: change in mood or presentation, distress, or outcries of abuse
- Engagement: changes in participation, interaction, and communication
- Supervision: access to a responsible adult and their level of involvement
The groups noted that a report does not automatically trigger a child being removed from a home or a parent being in trouble and said the most common outcome is supplying services and supports to families that are in need.
“We know that child abuse does not go away,” said Thomas King, the executive director of the Massachusetts Children’s Alliance. “All the things that really contribute and can amplify child abuse scenarios really are here during the COVID pandemic.”
The Massachusetts Children’s Alliance has a list of resources on its website.
In Suffolk County, there has been a “significant” decline in reports of child abuse to the office of District Attorney Rachael Rollins. From mid-March through mid-May, Rollins’ office has received 234 child abuse referrals, a 39 percent drop from the 386 received in the same period of 2019, according to a statement.
“In this time, many people are dealing with heightened job insecurity, housing insecurity and food insecurity, all of which can be accelerants for violence and abuse,” Rollins’ office said.
Rollins’ office said that the same mid-March through mid-May time period also shows that the amount of online crimes against children has almost doubled to 31 this year compared to the same period last year.
Mossaides said the district attorney’s offices in the state receive the most severe cases and not necessarily all reports or cases of abuse or neglect.
“Restrictions on daily life can be even more isolating and dangerous for victims of abuse, especially those for whom the only place to go is a household shared with the person responsible for the harm. Social interaction is often a lifeline; work and school are often temporary respites from abuse and trauma and classrooms are places where children find caring adults to whom they can disclose safely and those adults are also mandated reporters for abuse and neglect,” Rollins’ office wrote in the statement.
Rollins’ office is also collaborating with the Children’s Advocacy Center of Suffolk County to create a community safety net guide, #CommunitySafetNet, to share information and resources on how to protect and support children at risk.
Anyone who wants to report suspected abuse or neglect can call the DCF Child-At-Risk Hotline at (800) 792-5200, which is operational from 5 p.m. to 8:45 a.m. During business hours of 8:45 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Monday through Friday, callers should make reports to the office local to the child’s community. A list of offices and phone numbers is online.