Child welfare calls have plummeted during the pandemic. Advocates worry the numbers don’t tell the full story.

Child welfare calls have plummeted during the pandemic. Advocates worry the numbers don’t tell the full story.
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. (Source: WECT)

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 shows that from July 1, 2018, 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.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.