CFSA hotline calls, investigations and substantiated maltreatment reports plummeted under Covid-19 shutdown

Report Child Abuse—It's the Law | Attorney General Karl A. Racine

Last spring, reports poured in from around the country about drastic drops in calls to child abuse hotlines after the closure of schools due to Covid-19 and the loss of reporting from teachers and other school personnel. The District of Columbia was no exception, and Child Welfare Monitor DC shared early data from the Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) that documented a dramatic decrease in the number of hotline calls in the first month of the lockdown compared to the same period of the previous year. CFSA has finally uploaded data for the entire third quarter–April through June 2020–to its online Data Dashboard. This newly available data confirms the drastic decline in reports, investigations, and substantiations under the Covid-19 emergency.

The loss of reports from schools was the primary explanation for the drops in reports of child maltreatment around the country last spring. And indeed the shift to online education delivered a double blow to child protection efforts. For children who did attend virtually, it was harder for teachers to see signs of trouble, like bruises or hunger, than it would be in person. But many children were absent from digital classrooms much or all of the time. DCPS did not collect data on school participation last spring. But 57 percent of the 2,000 teachers who responded to a survey by the Washington Teachers’ Union, said that less than half their students were participating in virtual education. A child’s failure to participate may reflect the lack of a dedicated computer or internet access, difficulties in accessing platforms, a child too busy watching siblings or even working, or lack of engagement in virtual education.  Whatever the explanation for their absence, these children were not being seen by teachers, counselors or other school staff, often the ones who notice red flags. Other potential reporters, like doctors and extended family members, were also less likely to see children under the Covid-19 stay-at-home orders. 

In the District, schools closed for in-person classes on March 13, 2020. After a two-week spring break, online learning began on March 24 and ended on May 29, nearly a month early. So any effect on hotline calls should be observed starting in mid-March and ending in late June, when schools would normally close. To assess the effect of the school closure and health emergency, we compared the numbers of reports, investigations, dispositions, and foster care placements in the third quarter of 2020 (or April through June 2020) with the numbers during the same period of 2019.

The difference between the third quarter of 2020 and the same period of 2019 was staggering, as shown in Figure I. There were only 2,231 calls to the CFSA hotline between April and June 2020, compared with 6,058 during April to June 2019. That is a decrease of 63 percent. Unfortunately, CFSA does not provide quarterly data on the reporting source, so it is not possible to see which reports declined most. But if it the District is like other jurisdictions, school personnel probably accounted for a large fraction of the drop. The District’s drop in hotline calls may be even more pronounced than the national trend due to the District’s emphasis on school reporting of student absences before the pandemic, according to Judy Meltzer, President of the Center for the Study of Social Policy, who has followed CFSA for many years as the Court Monitor in its longstanding class action suit.

Calls to the hotline can be screened out as inappropriate, treated as “information and referral,” or result in investigations. The number of investigations dropped from 1773 in the third quarter of FY 2019 to 842 in the third quarter of FY 2020– a decrease of 52 percent–as shown in Figure 1. The fact that investigations decreased by a lesser percentage than hotline calls reflects the fact that hotline calls were more likely to result in investigations in 2020 than in 2019. The percentage of hotline calls resulting in investigations increased from 29 percent to 38 percent between the third quarter of 2019 and that same quarter of FY 2020. This suggests a trend that has appeared in other jurisdictions where data on referrals has been analyzed in detail. These analyses reveal that the reports made during the lockdown tended to be more serious, with the less serious reports more likely not to be made, as reported in our national blog, Child Welfare Monitor. This may be happening in the District, but the drastic drop in reports overall indicate that complacency is not in order. Clearly many serious referrals are being missed along with the less serious ones.

An investigation can have several possible results. It can result in a finding of “inconclusive,” meaning the evidence is insufficient to prove maltreatment despite some indications it occurred; “unfounded,” which means “there was not sufficient evidence to conclude or suspect child maltreatment has occurred;” or “substantiated,” indicating that the evidence supports the allegation of maltreatment. (See the CFSA Data Dashboard for the definitions of these terms as well as of another category called “incomplete investigations.”) There were 381 substantiated investigations between April and June, 2019, and there were only 214 substantiated investigations in the same period of 2020, representing a decrease of 44 percent. (See Figure I). Just as the number of investigations decreased by a lesser percentage than the number of reports, the number of substantiated investigations decreased by a lesser percentage than the number of investigations overall. The percentage of investigations that was substantiated increased from 21 percent to 25 percent between 2019 and 2020. Again, this may represent a tendency for the reports that come in to be more serious when school was virtual.

When an abuse or neglect allegation is substantiated, several things may happen, depending on the level of risk to the child or children in the home. The agency may take no action, refer the family to a community-based collaborative, open an in-home case, or place the child or children in foster care. Like hotline calls, investigations and substantiations, the number of children entering foster care plummeted during this quarter–from 97 in the third quarter of FY 2019 to 64 in the same period of 2020–a decrease of 34 percent. This percentage decrease, though large, is clearly smaller than the decreases in hotline calls, investigations and substantiations. Moreover, foster care entries began dropping precipitously before the pandemic hit, starting in the fourth quarter of FY 2019, as shown in Figure 2. During that period only 61 children were placed in foster care, 39 percent less than the 100 children placed in the same quarter of FY 2018. In the first quarter of FY 2019, 68 District children were placed in foster care, 40 percent less than the 114 children placed in the same quarter of the previous year. In January to March of 2020 (which saw the only the very beginning of the Covid-19 emergency), foster care placements fell by nearly two-thirds compared to the same quarter of 2019–43 compared to 115–truly the most surprising and confounding number in the graph. But in the first full quarter of the pandemic emergency, April through June 2020, 64 children were placed in foster care–almost 50 percent more than the previous quarter.

Thus, it appears that the decline in foster care placements during the pandemic emergency was actually a continuation of a trend that started earlier–and was more precipitous before the emergency than during it. When we asked CFSA about this, Communications Director Kera Tyler responded that the fall in foster care caseloads reflects CFSA’s continued commitment to keep children out of foster care by supporting families in their homes. “CFSA is committed to front-end operations to better support families with the goal of keeping them together without formal child welfare involvement whenever it’s safe to do so. In keeping with our Four Pillars strategic framework, we’ll continue to narrow the front door by linking families to community-based services that help to keep children in their homes.”

“Narrowing the front door” was the first pillar of the Four Pillars Strategic Framework instituted in 2012 by Brenda Donald in her first term at the Director of CFSA. It referred to the effort to support families so that children could remain safely at home. The number of children in foster care on the last day of the fiscal year declined every year between FY 2009 and 2019, falling from 2264 in 2008 to 798 in 2019. The decline appeared to be leveling off in Fiscal Years 2017 and 2018, but there appears to have been a renewed push to narrow the front door starting in the fourth quarter of Fiscal Year 2019. It is impossible to disentangle this trend from the effects of school closures and overall lockdowns, except to say that the downward trend in foster care placements actually moderated in the spring quarter.

The pandemic-induced reduction in calls, investigations, and substantiations remains equally alarming when we know that more of the unseen children would have been remaining at home with services rather than removed to foster homes. Because these children are invisible to the system, their families are not receiving the services they need to keep their children safe. And by the time these children are discovered (perhaps not until school buildings open again), conditions may have deteriorated to the extent that the children must be removed.

With school starting online on August 31, the need to find these unseen children is more urgent than ever. So what can be done? We have published a detailed list of suggested approaches, with examples and links, in our national blog, Child Welfare Monitor. These suggestions are listed briefly here.

  1. Public awareness campaigns using mailings, posters, and social media to remind community members to report any suspicion of abuse or neglect. The CFSA hotline was included on a postcard that also includes hotlines for Adult Protective Services and the DC Victims hotline. CFSA could do more by developing resources that provide more detailed information about signs of child abuse and neglect.
  2. Providing guidance to teachers and other traditional reporters on how to to spot signs of abuse and neglect in virtual settings: Many excellent materials are available and cited in the Child Welfare Monitor article. They provide some very helpful tips and warning signs for teachers to look out for, and parental behaviors to anticipate and try to prevent, like excessive punishment for children who receive a bad grade.
  3. Reaching out to nontraditional reporters, like animal welfare workers, postal workers, garbage collectors, and home repair specialists: These workers continue to see children and should be educated about signs of child abuse and neglect. The idea of partnering with animal protection organizations is particularly interesting. Animal abuse often coexists with child abuse, and encouraging information-sharing between the two systems is a promising idea that should be explored.
  4. Reaching out to at-risk families known to the system: Michigan and Allegheny County, Pennsylvania contacted higher-risk families with child welfare cases that recently closed to offer help with urgent needs, thus addressing stress and social isolation, which are major correlates of abuse and neglect. Many parents were very appreciative and eager to talk, and social workers reported some success in connecting them with services and benefits.
  5. Investing in Prevention: When it is harder to identify existing abuse and neglect, it makes sense to invest in preventing it. This is already a high priority for CFSA, which is establishing neighborhood family support centers. However it is our view that a more targeted, intensive approach that can be adapted for virtual use during the pandemic is called for. CFSA should look some programs currently under development in other jurisdictions, such as Allegheny County’s Hello Baby Program, which is universal but targets more intensive services to the families most at risk, and Michigan’s new pilot program pairing at-risk families with peer counselors and benefits navigators. These programs use predictive analytics or historical data to target the families most in need of help to prevent child maltreatment.
  6. The role of schools:: Ensuring children’s attendance in virtual education is not important only to prevent them from falling behind in school but also to fulfill the schools’ role as a protector of children. Unseen children cannot be protected. Video screens provide some opportunity for teachers to spot problems. We know that DC Public Schools were not successful last spring in getting computers and high-speed internet to all the children that needed them. The chancellor has promised to do a better job this year, but on the eve of opening day it was clear that many students still lacked a computer or an adequate internet connection. The schools must also do a better job of tracking attendance and reaching out to children who are not logging into school platforms. One Arlington County elementary school principal has directed teachers to provide the names of children who have not logged in by noon every day. Teaching assistants and other staff will reach out to these children and help resolve any problems until all students are engaged in school. DCPS and charter schools should adopt such a policy. They should also explore the possibility of adding to virtual platforms a button that children can push if they need help if there is trouble at home.

The District, like other jurisdictions, has seen a dramatic drop in calls to the child abuse hotline, resulting in a corresponding fall in investigations and substantiated allegations. These sobering statistics suggest that many abused and neglected children are currently invisible to the systems that exist to help them. CFSA and DCPS must take action quickly to identify these children; and CFSA should also develop more targeted efforts to prevent child abuse and neglect among at-risk families.

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