Don’t Buy the Hype That Child Abuse Is Sky-Rocketing

Perhaps you’ve heard the dire predictions: with more children at home, more parents out of work, and fewer eyes on the students because schools are closed, child abuse and neglect will skyrocket during this COVID-19 pandemic.

But now there are refreshing warnings: warnings from both the federal government and private sources, to caution us not to take those predictions too seriously.

In an article published at the federal government’s Chronicle of Social Change, David Kelly writes, “If we take a rational look at what we know, there is good cause to question the legitimacy of the alarmism.”

Kelly is special assistant to the associate commissioner of the US Children’s Bureau at the Department of Health and Human Services, and he writes especially for our nation’s child welfare and social workers.

At the same time, Eli Hager at the private nonprofit The Marshall Project wrote, “Is Child Abuse Really Rising During the Pandemic?,” in which he, too, warned of the dangers of believing the hype.

A Stark Double Standard

Kelly talks of a “stark double standard on display,” one that’s rooted in race.  “Unfortunately,” he writes, “our views of families involved with child welfare are less than generous. There remains a deep-seated distrust and lack of faith in the poor families and families of color that disproportionately populate the child welfare system.”

And Hager, citing “family advocates, child welfare experts, and state agency officials,” highlights the same concern: “that amid a national discussion over the over-policing of Black and brown people, it is mostly poor families of color who will be increasingly policed and stigmatized as a result of such hypothesizing.” (Emphasis added)

Hager’s mention of “hypothesizing” and Kelly’s talk of “alarmism” refer to the fear that many children will die of abuse, both because the children’s parents are angry and because the teachers—who usually watch for signs of abuse and rescue the children from it—are out of the picture.

As Kelly and Hager point out, however, there are considerable problems with this hypothesis, starting with the fact that there is no data to back it up.

What We Know

Hager acknowledges that this alone doesn’t prove there isn’t an increase in maltreatment. “Experts say it could be months before we have solid statistics on these trends,” he concedes. But, like Kelly, he then goes on to list what we do know now.

And one thing we know now is that such speculation, which points a disproportionately heavy finger at poor and minority families, only serves to increase the distrust that has led to too many families of color being separated unnecessarily.

We also know those separations result in harm to families, and especially to the children who are taken from their homes.

Kelly says it well: “The weight of the evidence points to the importance of supporting families and mobilizing around their needs. It is important to be mindful of the unfair pictures that foreboding narratives paint of poor families experiencing challenges.”

The solution, he says, is to “take a closer look through a less judgmental and reactionary lens.”

The Upside

Hager, meanwhile, looks at the upside that results from this shift in attention. With fewer reports coming in from school teachers about suspected abuse or neglect, 90 percent of which prove false anyway, “child welfare workers may actually be able to focus on real abuse.”

It’s a consideration we have mentioned more than once: more reports don’t equate to more substantiated cases of abuse. They just mean heavier caseloads for those looking to find the needle of abuse in a haystack of unnecessary calls.

And another upside Hager mentions is that “poor parents of color are being monitored and investigated less.”

For overworked single mom Sarah Harris in New York, that is quite a blessing, Hager says.

“Harris says that like many parents, she is feeling the stresses of the coronavirus. She works all night then has to help home-school her children. She can’t de-stress by taking the kids to the wax museum or by going out to have a cocktail.

“But for once she does not feel like she is getting reported all the time for her parenting mistakes.”

It’s About Respect

“But for once?” Those words alone are an indictment of what is wrong with our child welfare system today.

As both Hager and Kelly point out, we can do better. We must do better. And it begins with having more faith in our families.

Yes, some very few parents abuse or neglect their children, and that is a serious problem. But many more just need a little support and a bit of faith.

Giving them that begins with respecting and protecting their role as parents to be responsible for the tough day-to-day decisions of their own children.

And respecting and protecting these innocent families is what the Parental Rights Foundation is all about.

So, as always, thank you for standing with us.


Michael Ramey
Executive Director