Suffering in Silence: How COVID-19 School Closures Inhibit the Reporting of Child Maltreatment

The rapid spread of COVID-19 has generated immediate challenges for policymakers across multiple areas including health, fiscal, environmental, and education policy. To contribute to ongoing policy discussions, recent academic work has sought to understand the impact of COVID-19 policy responses on outcomes ranging from job losses to mortality to pollution. In a recent paper, we focus on the consequences of a widespread COVID-19 public health response—school closures.

To combat the spread of COVID-19, most K-12 schools in the U.S. canceled in-person classes. 

Recent work has highlighted the potentially costly effects of COVID-19 school closures on learning losses. However, time away from school could also negatively impact children through a much less explored channel: a broken link between frequent reporters of and victims of child maltreatment.

Four in ten children experience maltreatment by the time they reach adulthood. Research finds that these children experience lower levels of education and earnings later in life. School personnel are the primary reporters of suspected child maltreatment at home and roughly 20 percent of their reports are eventually substantiated (i.e., allegations that are investigated and confirmed as cases of child maltreatment).

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. This empirical approach effectively compares the actual number of allegations in March and April 2020 to the number of allegations that one would expect during these two months based on the number during previous Marches and Aprils. While one would expect the financial, mental, and physical stresses caused by COVID to result in more child maltreatment cases, we find that the actual number of reported allegations in Florida was 15,000 lower (27%) than expected for these two months. Scaling up our estimates, we calculate that over 200,000 allegations of child maltreatment went unreported nationwide.

Declines in child maltreatment reporting are typical during the summer months when school is out of session, but highly unusual during months in which schools are typically in session. We conduct several statistical tests and show that school closures are primarily responsible for the observed decline in reported child maltreatment allegations. 

We also show that counties with previously higher numbers of school staff trained to identify and report child maltreatment (e.g., school psychologists and nurses) experienced a disproportionately larger reduction in allegations. Taken together, our results suggest the decline in child maltreatment reporting during March and April of 2020 was driven by the loss of interaction between school staff, especially those trained to identify child maltreatment, and victims of child maltreatment.

Our results yield two policy implications. (1) While school closures may be effective in halting the spread of the disease, policymakers should consider the under-reporting of child maltreatment when evaluating cost-benefit analyses of school closures. What can be done to help? The pandemic may require the development of new strategies to ensure children are safe. For instance, school districts could coordinate virtual check-ins between school personnel trained to recognize signs of abuse and high-risk children. (2) Many states around the country have already announced dramatic budget cuts to public schools. Existing research has documented the negative consequences of budget cuts for student learning. Our results suggest that academic outcomes may not be the only aspect adversely affected by upcoming funding cuts. Reductions in funding for teachers and other school personnel could also weaken the lesser-known benefit of public schools that we document in our study.

Our hope is that this paper can shed some light on a less-explored public-policy implication of the COVID-19 pandemic that affects some of the most vulnerable among us. You can find a copy of our paper here:

Ezra G. Goldstein is a Ph.D. Candidate and L. Charles Hilton Jr Center Fellow in the Department of Economics at Florida State University.

The feature image is from New Atlas.

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