As Chicago schools closed again this week, thanks to a powerful teachers’ union that doesn’t think its members should have to work in-person, everyone knows the children are suffering. It is not uncommon to read stories now of kids falling behind academically or experiencing mental-health crises. A recent column by David Leonhardt in the New York Times lays out many of the terrible consequences of school shutdowns—including a spike in suicide attempts—that others have been warning about since early 2020. Unfortunately, Leonhardt failed to note the children suffering abuse and neglect because of school shutdowns.
There are two major problems for kids. First, we know school shutdowns have intensified many of the issues that cause child abuse and neglect. The fact that there were over 100,000 overdose deaths in 2021 tells us not only that many children found themselves left without two parents, or even one; it also tells us that many more adults were abusing drugs, making it more likely that their children would not be properly fed, clothed, or cared for. Substance abuse drives child-welfare problems in this country, and increased stress among those prone to such abuse is a disaster for kids.
The second problem is that, when kids are stuck at home, the signs of abuse and neglect are more likely to go unnoticed by other adults like teachers, who, because they are mandated reporters, are responsible for about a fifth of all reports to child services. Chicago officials are aware of the problem. Between January and May of 2020, calls to the statewide hotline in Illinois decreased by 44 percent. During the first week of May 2020, the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) received 42 percent fewer new reports than during the first week of May 2019. New York saw its numbers drop by a similar amount during that period.
And now the results are in. According to “Impact of ‘Stay-at-Home’ Orders on Non-Accidental Trauma: A Multi-Institutional Study,” presented last fall at the virtual American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference, the number of children experiencing severe abuse tripled during lockdowns. The report looked at data from nine pediatric trauma centers from March 2020 to September 2020 and compared it with data from the same span in the three years prior. Among children aged five and older, the number of abuse victims reached 103, up from an average of 36 before the pandemic. These may seem like small numbers, but they represent only the most extreme cases that led to hospital visits.
The situation in Chicago wasn’t great to begin with. After the deaths in quick succession of three children with cases well-known to DCFS, Illinois governor J. B. Pritzker requested a review of the department’s policies in 2019. The University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall research center found a system, as the Associated Press noted, in which there is “profound failure to communicate within the department; overburdened staffers; staffers so convinced that prosecutors wouldn’t agree with requests to remove children from homes that they didn’t bother to ask; and cases in which evidence and suspicions of abuse or neglect were brushed aside.”
These last two points are of particular concern because they signal that the department has made conscious choices to leave children in dangerous situations. In some cases, the department’s policies are keeping its employees in the dark about risks to children. “In two of the cases in which children were killed,” according to the report, “both families had extensive history with DCFS but reviews noted a substantial amount of history was inaccessible due to cases being expunged or purged.” Given that even unsubstantiated reports of previous abuse are one of the most reliable predictors of subsequent abuse, this puts investigators at a significant disadvantage. More than 500 children died between 2014 and 2018 either while they had open cases with the department or after their cases had been closed.
Keeping schools virtual will only serve to diminish our awareness of such dangers. The see-no-evil approach to child welfare was fatal before COVID-19; it has only become deadlier since. After almost two years, we can no longer claim ignorance.