As reports of child abuse have dropped in Texas since the coronavirus pandemic, advocates fear more victims may be suffering in silence.
“There is a concern that we don’t have the same mandated reporters of abuse, like teachers and medical professions, reporting abuse to the state,” said Andy Homer, chief public policy officer for Texas CASA, which advocates for foster youth.
Reports of child abuse to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services were down 4 percent in March — the month schools closed campuses due to COVID-19 — compared to the same time period in 2019.
“The number of reports has gone down substantially since the beginning of March,” said Homer.
In Houston, 264 calls were received by the state’s hotline on March 2. On March 23, there were 203 calls, according to Texas Child Protective Services.
Tiffani Butler, spokesperson for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, said there is usually a decrease in reports of abuse during breaks from school.
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Child abuse hotline calls:
March 2019 — 28,700
March 2020 — 27,400
Source: Texas Department of of Family and Protective Services
“It’s the same decrease we see every summer, and yes, typically because their teachers are who see them the most,” said Butler. “The calls increase every year once kids are back in school.”
Homer said that while there is usually a drop during spring break, the numbers come back up after a week.
“We do normally see a little fallout over spring break, and then it goes back up once kids are back in school,” he said. “But it’s not going back up right now. There is definitely a fear that we don’t know about everything going on out there.”
Due to concerns about spreading the virus, CPS said not all abuse investigations are being conducted in person. Caseworkers will only visit homes under certain circumstances, such as complaints about the condition of the home or the age of the children, Butler said. Otherwise, caseworkers are conducting them virtually for now.
Children who don’t have access to computers or WiFi don’t have as many opportunities to connect with resources or to get help if they need it, according to advocates.
“The troubling thing is that poverty is highly associated with abuse and neglect, and these are also the families most distanced by the digital divide,” Homer said.
Studies of natural disasters around the world show that in the months following, added stressors increase the risk of family violence.
“There is a concern that when we get to the other side of this, there may be raising rates of abuse,” said Homer. “Stressors involved with isolation and economic fallout does fall more heavily on poor families.”
The sudden economic downturn will likely cause a host of new stressors for families, including poverty and substance addiction. Many instances of domestic violence intersect with substance abuse, he added.
The leading reason children are removed from their homes is neglect, which represents 62 percent of CPS’ cases. The second most common reason, or 36 percent of cases, is parental drug abuse. Other reasons include caretaker inability to cope (14 percent), physical abuse (12 percent) and inadequate housing (10 percent).
As an expected wave of new cases may loom in the future, Texas’ court systems would be backlogged and overburdened, said Homer.
CPS encourages anyone who believes a child is being abused or neglected to call 1-800-252-5400 or to report it online at txabusehotline.org