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February 2021Vol. 22, No. 2Research Shows Correlations Between COVID-19 Stressors and Maltreatment

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many families have had to endure a range of negative experiences, including increased stress, social isolation, and economic hardship. These negative experiences particularly affect families involved with the child welfare system and may lead to increased incidences of child maltreatment.

From April 2019 to April 2020, Texas saw a 50-percent decline in calls to child protective services and a 56-percent decline in online reports, which can be attributed to children not being in school and in the presence of mandatory reporters. However, a recent report from Prevent Child Abuse Texas, Child Abuse and Neglect Risks During COVID-19, describes how, despite these decreases in reports, research in Texas supports the assumption that the stresses of COVID-19 on families is likely increasing the risk of child maltreatment during the pandemic.

According to the report, stressors such as natural disasters, economic recessions, and mental health issues tend to increase the chances for family violence to occur. The following are some statistics related to these stressors that show how child maltreatment may be increasing despite decreases in reports to child protective services:

  • National estimates on the actual prevalence of child maltreatment in the United States range between 3 and 40 percent. Most maltreatment is unreported and may be known only to the perpetrator and the victim. Researchers suggest that the decrease in child maltreatment reports may have been driven by school closures as two-thirds of child maltreatment reports are usually submitted by professionals such as teachers and other school staff.
  • Intimate partner violence is a risk factor for child maltreatment, and this type of family violence tends to increase following natural disasters. Quarantining and shelter-in-place orders may make it harder for people who might otherwise leave violent relationships to physically leave their environments.
  • Research on previous recessions conclude that increases in unemployment rates tend to increase incidences of family violence. 
  • Well-documented relationships exist between family violence, substance use (particularly alcohol use), and depression.

The report concludes that, although child maltreatment is a complex issue based on many factors, it is reasonable to assume that child maltreatment increased during 2020 based on previous research about how school closures affect maltreatment reporting, natural disasters affect family relationships (particularly with regard to intimate partner violence), unemployment is correlated to increases in incidences of abuse, and behavioral issues and substance use are related to increases in family violence.

This research makes it clear that protecting children means supporting and strengthening their families in ways that will help parents provide stable, nurturing, safe environments.