Big drop in child abuse reports is cause for concern

State official expects a surge of cases in September

REPORTS OF CHILD ABUSE or neglect in Massachusetts have dropped by more than half in recent months – and that has child protection advocates worried. 

Thousands of Massachusetts children are stuck at home around the clock due to school closures, and advocates are worried that has caused a huge uptick in unreported child abuse and neglect.

Nationally, there has been a decrease of 50 to 60 percent in child abuse and neglect reports since the coronavirus pandemic took holdIn Massachusetts, there has been a 55 percent decline in such reports

State and local officials are concerned about a big spike in the number of child abuse cases in the fall when students return to classes, a time when reports typically go up. 

In Septemberwhen kids come back to school — by end of that month to mid October you see this increase in filingsKids say things to teachers or teachers see things and file,” said Maria Mossaidesdirector of the state Office of the Child Advocate.

But this is by far the longest period of time that children will have been away from adults who can check in with them.
In my 40 
years of state governmentthis is the most unprecedented experience weve had,” said Mossaides, whose office is charged with ensuring all state agencies are appropriately delivering services to children 

The child welfare system is structured around mandatory reporters  teachersguidance counselorschild care providers, and others who are required by law to report instances of what they think is alleged child abuseThe state’s Department of Children and Families said that mandated reporters account for approximately 80 percent of the reports the department receives. 

By law, mandated reporters must file an oral report to DCF within 48 hours of suspecting a child is suffering from neglect or abuse.

During the last week before school shutdowns, March 7 to March 14, there were 2,123 reports of child abuse and neglect to DCF. That number plummeted to 951 reports between March 2to March 28. The numbers have remained around that figure until recently, when they increased slightly to 1,116 from May 2 to May 9, partially due to efforts by the agency and child advocates to reach out to families known to have high stress issues, like food insecurity, poverty, and children with medical problems and disabilities. 

The time period that teachers are physically away from students will be approaching six months by the time of scheduled school starts in September. 

For families with any involvement with state, not just DCF but also families in early intervention program, kids with a disability, or children with medical needs, what the state has done is to ask all the case managers in state government to reach out to families that are known to us and see how they’re doing and ask them if they need help and make appropriate referrals,” said Mossaides

Social workers with DCF have continued to respond to emergencies in-person, and to make home visits when child safety concerns arise. “DCF is coordinating efforts with our partner child-serving organizations to stay connected,” said Andrea Grossman, spokesperson for the agency.

“Furthermore,
 DCF’s approach is consistent with federal guidance, which includes the addition of videoconferencing to maintain contact with children, families, and foster parents.”

On Wednesday, Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins announced her office has seen a 39 percent drop abuse cases from mid-March to mid-May compared with the same period last year. Her office gets sent information on the most severe cases of child abuse, neglect, trafficking, and sexual assault. The number of reports dropped from 386 during the two-month period last year to 234 cases this year. Rollins said the decrease is “raising concerns.” 

No victims are more vulnerable than children,” Rollins said her announcement. “And during this pandemic, with social distancing, sheltering at home, and no schools in session there may be an increase in victimization due to increased physical isolation and lack of interaction with mandated reporters who could notice indicators of abuse. Her office is taking steps to create a community safety net guide for young victims of sexual abuse.  

Massive layoffs, food insecurity, along with close quarters, can be indicators for child abuse and neglect,” said Tammy Mello, executive director of Children’s League of Massachusetts. We’re asking people to reach out to family members to see how they’re doing, she said. Do they have enough food and rent? We know financial stress and isolation can cause parental stress and exacerbate situations of potential abuse. Mello said her organization is doing its best to connect parents with unemployment, food, and housing services, in order to lighten what can be very sudden and overwhelming situations.  

Children’s League and the Office of the Child Advocate are looking into how they can support teachers in September, but it’s difficult without knowing if students will be back in classrooms fulltime. Whether it’s a school setting or daycare, there’s going to need to be more clinical support, said Mello. You‘re talking about a six-month span of time where they might have been exposed to some trauma.” 

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

Most schools closed in Massachusetts around March 17.

According to federal data. Massachusetts has one of the highest rates of child abuse in the country with 26,000 children impacted last year.