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Beginning in April, child welfare calls from Virginia schools — usually the state’s top reporter for cases of suspected abuse or neglect — dropped by about 98 percent.

The Virginia Department of Social Services traced the sudden decline to statewide school closures in late March, which limited face-to-face interactions between students and teachers. Since then, calls have increased incrementally, but still haven’t returned to pre-pandemic levels, according to Kristin Zagar, director of the agency’s Division of Family Services.

“The school numbers are going up slightly, but it’s definitely not back to where it was,” she added during a presentation to the state’s Executive Council for Children’s Services earlier this month. From February to April, overall hotline referrals from all sources declined by 45 percent. By July, there were still 462 fewer calls than during the same month last year.

There’s been a similar decrease in calls across the country — from Montana to Ohio, Kentucky to Texas — sparking concerns that abuse and neglect is going unreported amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It became an early talking point in the debate over reopening schools, driven by a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which noted their role in identifying “child and adolescent physical or sexual abuse.”

But for child welfare advocates in Virginia, the reality isn’t so simple. “There’s this sort of false narrative that during the pandemic, there’s been this epidemic of children being beaten and otherwise harmed at home,” said Valerie L’Herrou, staff attorney for the Virginia Poverty Law Center’s family and child welfare program. 

“But really, there never was, ever,” she added. “The reality is that a small percentage of the reports that are made have to do with abuse. The majority have to do with neglect.”

L’Herrou was referring specifically to data from Virginia’s child protective services hotline, which show that from July 1, 2018 to to June 30, 2019 — the latest available report — roughly 20 percent of statewide referrals involved physical or sexual abuse. 

The majority, at just over 46 percent, involved neglect — a broad category that Ali Faruk, director of public policy for the nonprofit Families Forward Virginia, said can include both severe cases and children who come to school with bad hygiene or underdressed for the weather. And among the state’s 136,982 total hotline calls, many never reach the point of a full investigation.

From 2018 to 2019, only about 15 percent of calls were investigated by local agencies. Roughly 36 percent were referred for family assessment, where CPS can connect families to optional services. 

Nearly 44,000 calls were classified as invalid, which means they didn’t meet the state’s four criteria for investigating a referral. And a little more than 12,000 calls — nearly 9 percent of the total — were ruled to be unfounded. A 2018 report from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services found that just over 57 percent of Virginia’s CPS referrals were “screened-out,” a category that means they’re dismissed from the state’s data system

“It may well be that we’re seeing this drop in cases reported because there should never have been as many cases reported in the first place,” L’Herrou added. “It’s unclear if the calls that are coming into the hotline now are really because we’re not catching abuse and neglect or it’s that the calls that are coming in now are actual cases.”

Children play tag in a hallway at Fox Elementary School in Richmond, (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

‘Systems of poverty’

That uncertainty is concerning for many advocates across the state, who say the ongoing pandemic is highlighting existing weaknesses within Virginia’s child welfare system. Allison Gilbreath, a policy analyst for the nonprofit Voices for Virginia’s Children, said it’s still too early to tell whether the decline in calls really means that abuse or neglect is going undetected.

Anecdotally, she said there have been reports that CPS calls during the pandemic are growing in severity — a trend that some hospitals have also observed. Dr. Robin Foster, a physician at VCU’s Children’s Hospital of Richmond, said Monday that the number of child abuse patients has stabilized but that case presentations have shifted toward an increase in severe physical abuse (“presumptively because we are missing the early warning signs,” she wrote in an email), acute sexual assaults, and ingestions, which she defined as young children taking or being given prescription or recreational drugs.

“That makes me worry there are children who are in serious situations that we’re not learning about until they’re in the emergency room and something really terrible has happened,” Gilbreath added. Duncan Alonso, the executive director of Virginia Beach’s court appointed special advocates program — a nonprofit that supports victims of child abuse and neglect through legal proceedings — said calls to nationwide to domestic violence hotlines have also increased despite lagging numbers from CPS. 

“So, while CPS calls might not reflect that, we know that domestic violence and child abuse are often co-occurring,” he added. But Gilbreath said there are still lingering questions over whether the majority of CPS calls help identify legitimate neglect or abuse or if they’re targeting children “within systems of poverty.” 

“What neglect looks like is kind of in the eye of the beholder,” L’Herrou said. Teachers in Virginia — like nurses, doctors, law enforcement officers and child care providers — are considered mandatory reporters under state law, which means there can be penalties for failing to report abuse and neglect. She said those requirements can lead to reports in cases such as children having holes in their shoes or being left home alone — situations that are often more likely for low-income parents.

“This is where us, as advocates — our goal isn’t to say we used to get 100 calls a month from teachers so this September, this October, we want to get another 100 calls because we want to make sure kids are safe,” Faruk added. “A teacher staring at a kid through a Zoom screen and then calling CPS— we don’t actually know if that makes a child any safer.”

L’Herrou said neglect calls — especially during the pandemic — can also disproportionately impact families of color, who are more likely to work in so-called “essential” fields that require in-person work. The narrative that child abuse is increasing during the pandemic can be stigmatizing for these families, she added, especially when the federal government’s temporary $600 boost in unemployment benefits made it more likely that parents could stay home with their children without worrying about finances.

Advocating for additional funding

Faruk said there is concern that stressors might increase if the additional benefits expire before the end of the pandemic. Families Forward Virginia has worked with DSS to create training modules aimed at identifying child abuse in a virtual environment, which focus more on ensuring that children are connected with a network of supportive adults — including other family members and teachers — rather than punitive measures.

“Our tagline is we’re trying to move people from mandated reporters to mandated supporters,” he added. “Part of the issue is that if the majority of CPS calls are about neglect, it means there are all these children who rely on their school systems for basic necessities.”

Like many advocates, he’s also petitioning the state’s General Assembly to retain planned budget increases for Virginia’s overburdened and underfunded child welfare system, which were unalloted in April thanks to expected decreases in state revenues. Gilbreath said the objective is to move services from reactive to proactive — one of the goals of a 2019 state law that aimed to direct funding and services to at-risk families before children can enter the foster care system.

Implementation of the law has been delayed until the end of January, which Cristy Horsley, the advocate and manager for CASA of Central Virginia, said was largely due to funding and staffing restraints during the pandemic. In the meantime, advocates are still watching to see what effect the drop in calls might have on identifying child abuse and neglect. 

Alonso said there’s likely to be a clearer picture if schools fully reopen and referrals to CASA — which have been declining statewide during the pandemic, according to state program coordinator Melissa O’Neill — suddenly increase again.

“It would be great if we didn’t see an uptick,” Alonso added. “It was interesting because we didn’t see that kind of increase after the courts reopened. It’s been pretty consistent with last year.”