Because Childhood Lasts a Lifetime.

Child Abuse and Neglect During the Pandemic – A Complicated Story So Far

Statements & Messages

What a heavy week it is for our nation and communities. Words are not enough to express our collective grief, and our hearts are with the families of the victims and the entire community in Uvalde, Texas. As a mother, I’m angry and frustrated and so sad (all the feelings, really), knowing that these events and the tragic loss of lives did not have to happen. This could have been prevented if we truly implemented a comprehensive approach to preventing gun violence.

The same is, of course, true for preventing child abuse and neglect—comprehensive approaches that include evidence-based policies and programs, norms change and commitments to assuring the conditions for thriving children and families are what will prevent child abuse and neglect from happening in the first place. However, more than two years into a global pandemic, families and children are still struggling with enormous challenges and stressors that compromise their ability to thrive. As such, I wanted to share some brief thoughts on a question I get asked daily as the President and CEO of Prevent Child Abuse America: what happened to child abuse and neglect rates during the pandemic?

If we look at emergency department (ER) data, cases of physical abuse appear to have decreased – however, severe injuries due to physical abuse requiring hospitalization remained stable in the early weeks of the pandemic. We know that many families were very reluctant to visit hospitals for fear of catching COVID-19 which could represent some of the decline in the number of cases.

And, child welfare data demonstrate a decrease in child maltreatment from 2019 to 2020. What is less clear about these data is whether decreases represent ACTUAL reductions in maltreatment, or changes in reporting behavior that brings children and families into contact with child welfare agencies. Future research will help us understand the patterns we are seeing here.

To build out this picture more: 

  • A recent study in the state of Connecticut points to reductions in child physical abuse and sexual abuse, but suggests that neglect increased during the pandemic. 
  • The National Child Abuse Hotline (1-800-4-A-CHILD), after initial drops in call and text message volume early in the pandemic, saw increases in calls and text messages from 2019 to 2020 from adults and teens. 
  • CDC data released in March 2022 show adolescents reporting concerning levels of both mental health challenges (something we’ve all been seeing in news headlines) and emotional abuse. 
  • Survey findings from our work with the American Academy of Pediatrics and Tufts Medical Center document both the struggle and the resilience of children and families during COVID-19. 
  • And, countless studies from the pandemic point to increased risk factors for abuse and neglect during shelter-in-place orders. 

So, here are my thoughts on what we’ve seen so far.   

First, risk factors for child abuse and neglect were high pre-pandemic and remained high or got worse during the COVID-19 pandemic, so we would expect an increase in maltreatment. Either there are reasons why our child welfare data and ER data are showing decreases (other than actual reductions in abuse) or our theories about risk factors are incomplete. Additional scientific studies are needed to help us answer these critical questions. 

Second, we are observing some signs of hope – families continue to demonstrate extreme resilience in the face of trauma, loss, and financial hardship. Some families were able to develop new routines, participate in activities together, and find satisfaction in spending increased time together. Likely, investments made by the federal government eased some of the financial pressures that all too many families were facing. Research is clear that concrete and economic supports to families are a key child maltreatment prevention strategy; however, we do not yet have empirical data to demonstrate whether these supports are associated with reduced maltreatment during the pandemic. 

And finally, what we do know is that both risk and opportunity are unequally available and distributed across the population. Data from the RAPID-EC Project show that low-income families, Black and Latinx families, and those living with a child with a disability experienced higher rates of material hardship than their counterparts during the pandemic. We need to examine and understand how the COVID-19 pandemic affected children and families of color, LGBTQ+ children, and many other groups of children who are consistently and disproportionately exposed to risk factors.   

At the moment, I feel I have more questions than answers – but as we navigate this period of uncertainty, I’m more committed than ever to lead PCA America forward with intention, maintaining our focus on racial justice, equity, and primary prevention so that we may assure the conditions for health and wellbeing for children and families before they find themselves in crisis.  And we will continue to do this work with an immense amount of hope for children and belief in families and communities across the country.  

With our collective efforts, we can ensure that children can build safe, stable, and nurturing relationships in environments that support and honor their development and prosperity. Let’s continue to work toward the goal of preventing child abuse, America – because childhood lasts a lifetime. 

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