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OP-ED: COVID-19 affects child abuse and neglect

Sophie Phillips, Chief Operating Officer, TexProtects: the Texas Association for the Protection of Children

The ongoing lawsuit against the state of Texas on behalf of youth in state care has brought needed attention to the continued challenges and often unacceptable conditions for children who have been removed from their homes due to abuse and neglect. These children deserve better – they deserve protection and healing, and they need it now. But truly learning from our failings of these children would go beyond “fixing it” now. A fire would be lit from underneath, and we would have urgency and fervor to create a system of care to support families and children so that removals become the rare exception, and Texas spends its money preventing abuse rather than recovering from it.

With 80% of Child Protective Services cases addressing neglect rather than abuse, it’s clear that Texas families need support more often than they need protection.  We currently have a $2 billion budget focused on protection, and the outcomes from that investment may not be the ones we want.  Meanwhile, families, many of whom were already struggling, are facing additional stressors from COVID-19, including unemployment, substance use challenges, mental health concerns, and limited access to emotional support or concrete needs. When families are unwell, children are at risk.

Although not widely studied, the largest research done during the Great Recession of 2007-2009 and child welfare impact may provide insight into the increased risks to children during times of economic hardship. Schneider, Waldfogel, & Brooks-Gunn found that for each percentage point increase in the unemployment rate, physical abuse increased by 15%, and emotional abuse increased by 12%. In our new  COVID-19 Child Abuse and Neglect Risk Projections report, we anticipate the impact on Texas children if those rates hold in our current economy and 8% unemployment rate. Those projections would indicate a potential 3,500 additional cases since March costing $2.9 billion to Texas taxpayers, not to mention the lifelong impacts for the victims and families.

We need the ability to balance these projections with hard data to know the impact during COVID-19, but unfortunately, most data is only made available publicly once per year. Even then, the data won’t be able to reflect the true impact. We must listen to the families, communities, and providers about the realities of their experiences, which is one of the many challenges.

The same study found decreases in neglect and neglectful supervision with increased unemployment. However, I would caution us in expecting this to hold true in the current pandemic where families are facing much more challenging realities. With increased physical and behavioral health challenges as well as the need of many parents to juggle work with full-time childcare without access to physical and emotional supports, the risks for neglect may be increasing as well. While this time has allowed some parents to build stronger bonds and nurturing relationships with their children, for others, it has created much more tension and instability.

We have the chance to show through our policy and practice where our values lie. Will we invest in children and families – or will we wait to respond only when crisis and trauma have occurred?

The best way to prevent child abuse and neglect is when individuals, communities, and policymakers create opportunities for families to access the supports they need in times of stress. Times like these.

Despite anticipated revenue shortfalls, cutting critical services for children and families isn’t an option. We can prevent abuse and neglect by investing in cost-effective, evidence-based programs that support infants and toddlers, like home visiting and ensuring a system of care that includes high-quality child care, access to health services for moms and babies, and economic supports when needed. These are all proven to be not only effective programs for children and families but effective policies that lessen the government load and taxpayer burden in later years when we invest early.

Fortunately, our policymakers have exempted our child welfare agency (CPS) in budget cuts during this fiscal year. This commitment must be protected when they convene in January, but it must be extended to other direct services for children and families, including prevention programs. Otherwise, we open the door to significant increases in child abuse and neglect and trauma, asking our children to pay the price. It is time to stop spending money fixing problems we have the power to prevent.

Sophie Phillips, CEO of TexProtects. Sophie has been with TexProtects, a 501(c)3 non-profit that works to prevent child abuse and neglect throughout the state of Texas, since 2012. You may reach her at sophie@texprotects.org.