A recent report from Cook Children’s Hospital in Fort Worth stating that six cases of suspected severe child abuse came through the hospital last week has led to speculation that stress from the COVID-19 outbreak is fueling a spike in incidents of abuse. While it is critical for communities to remain vigilant for signs that children are being abused, it is equally important to recognize that this is a very small sample size and to avoid rushing to conclusions that could wind up causing greater harm to already struggling families.
Since severe incidents of child abuse are the cases most likely to make the news, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that these horrific cases are a minority of all confirmed cases of child maltreatment. Among the more than 74,500 confirmed cases in Texas during fiscal year 2019, more than 54,000—nearly 3 out of every 4 cases—were for neglectful supervision. Physical abuse, by comparison, accounted for 11-percent of all confirmed maltreatment allegations.
The Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) defines neglectful supervision as the “improper supervision of a child left alone which could have resulted in substantial harm.” This broad category encompasses a variety of situations that are symptomatic of other underlying issues such as poverty and lack of adequate child care, which are often exacerbated by the absence of strong social support structures within communities.
If the COVID-19 outbreak does, in fact, result in an increase in the number of children who enter the child welfare system, it is likely that a majority of these cases will be neglect-related. This is not to minimize the reality or evil of the physical and sexual abuse of children, but rather to provide an accurate assessment of the risks so that we can take appropriate action to better support our neighbors during this unprecedented time.
Increasingly stringent “social distancing” measures being employed to reduce the spread of the virus are already resulting in job losses and cancellations of community gatherings. Aside from the obvious economic impact and accompanying stress on parents who lose employment, these measures have also caused a catastrophic disruption in the level of social capital within communities, which adds to the risk of children entering foster care.
Generally speaking, social capital is a term of art describing how we associate with one another. It encompasses things like the perceived level of social and emotional support through peer and familial relations, reciprocity and trust within one’s community, and civic engagement such as religious and political participation. Rich social capital creates a network of resources to support not only the individual, but to help the entire community flourish. Higher levels of community social capital, especially within communities that are typically at increased risk, have been linked to improved well-being, healthy development, broader community success, and lower levels of child maltreatment.
The good news is, improving the social capital within our communities doesn’t require a stimulus package or other government action. As state and federal officials debate the appropriate actions to take in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, we need not sit on our hands and wait. Now, more than ever, individuals and families must come together to support their neighbors through tangible and non-tangible ways.
The best way to protect vulnerable children is not to react out of fear or speculation, but to understand the true nature of the problem and reclaim ownership of our communities by coming alongside our neighbors who are struggling.