Other than their parents and caregivers, children spend more time with their teachers and school staff than with almost any other adults.
So when something is wrong or seems off, educators are often the first to notice. As a result, educators end up detecting a significant number of child-abuse cases each year.
These telling moments are not always clear or glaring. Maybe a usually social student is sitting by himself at lunchtime. Or a student is acting out on the playground. A teacher might pick up on that. Or a hallway exchange or behavior on the school bus could lead a staff member to key in on potential struggles in a student’s home life.
But with the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, these situations where trouble might be noticed have disappeared overnight. And when remote learning ramped up, authorities noted that reports of child abuse and neglect dropped dramatically—between 30 and 70 percent nationally. But it is hard to know whether that is because instances of abuse are down, or whether more cases are going unreported.
To get a sense of where this issue stands seven months into the pandemic, EdSurge connected with Bart Klika, chief research and strategy officer at Prevent Child Abuse America. Klika believes that educators and school leaders can work with parents to create a home environment where abuse and neglect don’t happen at all. He says that remote learning and the increased family engagement it has brought may actually create opportunities for educators.
Listen to this week’s podcast on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music, or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player below. Or read the partial transcript, which has been lightly edited for clarity.
EdSurge: So in the early days of the pandemic, there were reports coming out that child abuse rates had declined rapidly, ever since students began remote learning in the spring. Do you have a sense of how much those numbers dropped and why? On its face, fewer reports of child abuse would seem like a good thing.
Bart Klika: Early reports since the shelter in place orders are suggesting that actual reports to official agencies like Child Protective Services are down.
Back in the spring, I think it was in April, there were some researchers from Washington University in St. Louis that wrote an article that talked about the declines in reports of child abuse and neglect. And from a state level, those numbers were decreasing anywhere from 30 to 70 percent. And there's been a lot of discussion as to what those declines are about.
What a lot of people have speculated is that because of the shelter-in-place orders, kids are no longer in schools and because kids are no longer in schools, they don't have educators, they don't have principals, they don't have the bus drivers kind of looking out for them and noticing some of the subtleties that we otherwise might see if kids were in person.
And so what has been suggested is because we don't have that face-to-face interaction with kids, actual reports—because of these kind of subtle detectable behaviors and observations aren't happening—that we see decreased reports of child abuse.
And what are some of the tell-tale signs of abuse and neglect that teachers are trained to look for in person—those kinds of subtle cues or those moments on the playground or in the lunch room that you mentioned? And how do those transfer to a virtual environment?
Under what we would say is pre-COVID conditions, a lot of the ways in which the general public thinks about child abuse is the image of bruises, of broken bones—of these more severe forms of physical abuse. But when we look at our national data, between two-thirds and three-quarters of the cases that end up substantiated—so through investigation, they're determined to have child abuse or neglect happening—are for child neglect. So that’s when a child doesn't have enough food. They don't have access to shelter or other basic needs [like] medical care [and] education.
The signs and symptoms of something like neglect are oftentimes much more subtle. Prior to COVID, obviously educators and others are looking for signs of abuse—bruises, broken bones, those are the obvious things—but also looking for changes in a child's behavior. And so are they becoming more socially withdrawn? Are they becoming more aggressive on the playground? I mean, these are not telltale signs that child abuse is occurring in a home, but it sort of raises the question about what's going on for this child.
And so I think that as we've switched to a virtual platform, we've lost the ability for some of those subtle cues that teachers and educators and education staff within schools otherwise could observe. Now educators are really seeing their classroom through a 12-inch screen, and they're seeing individual kids in a little tiny window on their screen.
It's very difficult to connect with kids in a really meaningful way for educators in the classroom. Think about a child that you've worked with who stays in for recess and just wants to talk to you. We no longer really have that in the virtual format. A lot of the things that we're hearing right now are about educators really trying to find ways to connect with kids—through chat function, doing daily check-ins about, you know, ‘How are you doing today?’ and really helping kids access some of the emotional language and really trying to find out how they're doing in the context of this global pandemic.
I want to resist the urge of putting all responsibilities on teachers, but do you think the pandemic provides new opportunities that may help teachers get in front of this issue?
The responsibility for child abuse and neglect is really a responsibility of everyone. It's the responsibility of communities. It's the responsibility of parents to ensure that we create the conditions and contexts for safe, stable, nurturing relationships and environments.
I think educators have an opportunity to talk to parents, to get to know them just as they do the kids in their class, and to use the virtual platform as an opportunity to reach out and see how families are doing. And when family needs are identified, that we look within our communities for what resources are out there and that we advocate when resources don't exist in our communities to make sure that we have those resources for when family needs are identified.
What are some things that you might tell educators and school systems that they can be doing to create an environment where child abuse and neglect are unlikely to take place at all?
There's been a big movement over the last decade or so to create what's called trauma-informed systems or trauma-informed schools. And so the idea is that we look at our policies, we look at our practices and we integrate what we know about the effects of trauma into everything we do—how we respond to kids, how we engage kids, the ways that we construct our classrooms, the types of policies that we have in place.
At the same time, creating a trauma-informed system also means that we're looking at the health and wellbeing of those who are employed within our system. That’s the idea of a secondary trauma of burnout, the idea that as an educator, you're hearing about stories of things that are going on in kids' lives—that starts to really affect you. And so part of a trauma-informed system really addresses the health and wellbeing of those who are employed within these systems.