In a new research paper published on May 17, 2020, Suffering in Silence: How COVID-19 School Closures Inhibit the Reporting of Child Maltreatment, three researchers document how the closure of schools across the country is affecting reports of child abuse and neglect. The authors examine historical patterns of child abuse reports going down when schools are traditionally closed and increased when schools reopen in the fall. The researchers dig deep to adjust for economic and other factors to project how the pandemic is affecting child abuse reporting during this COVID-19 pandemic.

The three authors state, how, “Using current, county-level data from Florida, we estimate a counterfactual distribution of child maltreatment allegations for March and April 2020, the first two months in which Florida schools closed. While one would expect the financial, mental, and physical stress due to COVID-19 to result in additional child maltreatment cases, we find that the actual number of reported allegations was approximately 15,000 lower (27 percent) than expected for these two months. We leverage a detailed dataset of school district staffing and spending to show that the observed decline in allegations was primarily driven by school closures… Furthermore, we show that these findings are likely not unique to Florida’s institutional context and may apply broadly across the country.”

As the authors note, early detection of child maltreatment could mitigate harmful effects. They note that in recent research documents that the number of child maltreatment cases is roughly 30 to 65 percent higher at the beginning and at the end of the school year, compared to the beginning and end of the summer break period.

The research shows that in those counties with higher numbers of staff trained to identify and report child maltreatment (e.g., school psychologists and school nurses) experienced a disproportionately larger reduction in the number of reports compared to other counties with fewer of these trained school personnel. They also point out that despite the decline in the number of calls to child abuse hotlines, calls to domestic violence hotlines have risen sharply around the country and suggest that many children may be in increasingly unsafe homes.

The authors do make some general policy recommendations, including the possibility of school districts coordinating check-ins between school personnel trained to recognize signs of abuse and government agencies ensuring that maltreatment reporting resources are easily accessible and promoted. They note that non-professional reporters, including family members and neighbors, submit approximately 17 percent of all child maltreatment reports in the last annual child maltreatment report.

The other major recommendation should be of concern regarding upcoming budget debates and relief packages. They note, “Reductions in funding for teachers and other school personnel could also weaken the lesser-known benefit of public schools that we document in this study—providing a resource for students suffering from child maltreatment. Policymakers faced with funding constraints should additionally consider this potential consequence when making difficult budget decisions.”