What lies beneath the data: Reduced child abuse reports hide a dangerous reality
- By Lori Nolen
- Jun 17, 2020
Reports of child abuse and neglect have dropped drastically during the COVID-19 crisis. For example, Los Angeles County saw half the number of reports in April than it did in the same month last year. Child abuse hotlines are claiming a 70% drop in calls. To anyone considering this logically, and in conjunction with drastic increases in reports of gender and spousal abuse, this makes little sense. The data, which would be cause for celebration during normal times, hides a sinister truth that likely will not be revealed until isolation orders are lifted.
A child in home isolation has no access to the adult network that tends to report incidents of abuse and neglect. Many at-risk children have been cut off from other adults in which they can confide. For these children, home is not a place of refuge. The places which are “safe,” such as schools, clubs, friends’ homes, the street etc. have been denied to them. When doors eventually open, we should anticipate, and fear, a deluge of child abuse cases.
Absent new reports, what can case workers and law enforcement do to help these children? Ironically, the answer may lie in data. It is more important than ever to identify children at greatest risk and prioritize finite resources to protect those in imminent and escalating danger. Data and analytics can provide insights into domestic abuse plaguing both children and adults during the pandemic.
While child abuse reports are down, social distancing and lockdown measures have generated a substantial increases domestic violence as the order to stay at home increases victims’ exposure to danger. Organizations supporting victims of violence have reported a surge in casesof 30%. Simultaneously, the victims’ route to safety is narrowing as many domestic violence organizations are less able to provide shelter and assistance. Social services agencies are also struggling as COVID-19 strains an already overburdened workforce.
Like all sectors of society, police and social services are facing new challenges. But with domestic violence, failure to rise to those challenges can have disastrous consequences. What other data is out there that can fill in the information gaps that could be obscuring neglect and abuse?
Early re-opening states as leading indicators
Many states are already loosening restrictions on schools, childcare providers, churches and other organizations. As children begin to reconnect with their larger adult networks, how many and what types of abuse reports will we see? As adult victims of abuse emerge back into the world and gain easier access to help and support networks, what will we learn? Analytics can find patterns in the data to inform actions in states with strong restrictions still in place.
Weighing risk factors differently. There are underlying contributors to abuse that will be exacerbated by prolonged isolation. Numerous reports suggest alcohol consumption has increased dramatically during this time. Excessive drinking can not only lead to shorter tempers and violence but to depression and anxiety. Even without alcohol, indications of depression and anxiety have skyrocketed. Data from U.S. pharmacy benefit management company Express Scripts indicates that prescriptions for depression, anxiety and insomnia increased 25.4% between Feb. 16 when the first cases were emerging in the U.S. and March 15, just after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Caregivers suffering from mental health issues have a harder time caring for loved ones, which can result in neglect. Should families that are already in the system with a history or substance abuse and/or mental illness be given extra attention during this time? What other risk factors might be given additional weight? The data from re-opening states and countries should be informative.
Identifying financial stress. The added stress from financial struggles can compound the likelihood of abuse in a home. Stay-at-home restrictions and closing of all but essential businesses have pushed unemployment claims to new heights. Meanwhile, the federal government has injected billions in dollars in emergency allotments into supplemental nutrition programs. However, unemployment and social benefit data are not the only indicators that citizens are in trouble financially. Delinquent utility account data can serve as a proxy measure of financial distress and a possible sign that people are having to sacrifice basic expenses to scrape by. Additionally, business and personal bankruptcy filing data reveal dire financial straits.
Learning from school outreach. Schools and teachers are doing their best to maintain instruction and connection with students. While there are barriers to remote instruction, often correlated with socioeconomic factors, a child’s lack of school participation could indicate neglect or abuse. Chronic school absenteeism is an indicator of neglect in normal times. With remote learning, children are seemingly less compelled to “attend” school, and a neglectful parent may not make the extra effort to have their child participate in whatever virtual learning the school has arranged. While there could be reasons for parents not taking advantage of the at-home learning, non-participation could also be a sign of neglect.
An unprecedented crisis calls for unprecedented approaches to data sharing
Due to privacy regulations, law enforcement and social services agencies do not have access to such disparate data sources as social benefits, health, education, unemployment and personal financial data. That’s appropriate and understandable. But even if we’re able to combine a subset of the data, we may be able to establish new risk approaches, unique to a pandemic. As the crisis persists or even when COVID-19 recedes and returns, as most public health officials fear it will, we can be better prepared to help the most vulnerable among us.
Lori Nolen is an industry consultant in the US Government and Education Practice at analytics provider SAS.