It would probably warrant celebration at any other time. Reports of abuse and neglect filed with the Department of Children and Families are down by half. But in light of a pandemic, stay-at-home advisories and social distancing, the frightening fact is that fewer calls undoubtedly mean abuse is being left to fester.
So concludes Maria Mossaides, the state’s child advocate, whose role is to serve as a watchdog on the Department of Children and Families and other agencies that serve children. Reports to DCF dropping in half from mid-March to mid-April probably means problems are “not coming to our attention,” she told New England Public Radio this week.
There’s a simple explanation. Schools are closed and so are most other programs for kids. Abuse reports come from a range of sources, but as the Washington Post reports, no category of adult picks up the phone more often than teachers and school administrators. Given that 4 in 5 abusers are parents of victims, the newspaper notes, steps to limit the spread of COVID-19 are locking up abused children, in many cases, with the people hurting them.
The economic fallout from COVID-19 makes it worse. Parents who’ve lost jobs and struggle to pay the bills feel more stress, and that strains relationships with their kids.
DCF was taking an average of 2,000 reports of suspected abuse and neglect per week at the end of last year. Certainly not every one meant abuse truly was occurring. More than one-third did not meet the department’s criteria for further investigation or a referral to prosecutors.
Still, even when the data are interpreted in the most hopeful light, reducing the volume of calls by half suggests hundreds of legitimate reports aren’t coming to light. If there’s any positive news in this, it’s that caseworkers, who’ve replaced many of their in-person visits to families with virtual ones, still knock on doors if they suspect children could be in bad circumstances. “We are not avoiding home visits. If there’s a child at imminent risk of abuse or neglect, we have to get out there to intervene,” Adriana Zwick, head of the caseworkers’ union, told New England Public Radio.
These strained conditions also shift responsibility to parents and the public at large to call if they have reason to believe children are in trouble.
Anyone in need of services from the state of Massachusetts can call “211” or visit mass211.org to be directed to the appropriate agency.