Worldwide, child welfare organisations warn that the COVID-19 lockdown measures will increase cases of child maltreatment (e.g. UNICEF 2020), which includes the sexual, physical, and emotional abuse and neglect of any person under 18 years old. If these forecasts become reality, the additional cases of child maltreatment will be costly. First, there will be the direct costs to victims, through worse health, lower socio-economic outcomes (education and earnings), and higher likelihood of criminal involvement (Currie and Widom 2010, Currie and Tekin 2012). Second, this will generate a substantial economic burden for societies. In the US before COVID-19, the estimated lifetime cost for a non-fatal child maltreatment case, per-victim, was $830,928 (in 2015 dollars), with aggregated costs of $428 billion for annual substantiated cases (Peterson et al. 2018). More conservative estimates for the UK suggest per-victim lifetime costs of approximately £89,390 (Conti et al. 2017). The current lockdown and future consequences of the pandemic will potentially exacerbate these costs via at least two channels: childcare availability and unemployment.
Worldwide, the COVID-19 crisis has forced governments to close nurseries and schools, which may affect both the reporting and the incidence of child maltreatment cases.
Usually, the largest share of reports alleging child abuse and neglect are from educational personnel (about 20% in 2018 as reported by the US Department of Health and Human Services). As such, professional educators play a key role in the early detection and reporting of child maltreatment (Fitzpatrick et al. 2020). These cases will remain at least temporarily unmasked as a consequence of the schools lockdown.
At the same time, social distancing measures will compel children to spend most of their time at home with their parents, who are often the main perpetrators (about 77% of cases, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services in 2018). The youngest children are the most vulnerable to maltreatment (more than one-quarter of victims are below age three (US Department of Health and Human Services 2018). Therefore, in light of the COVID-19 crisis and subsequent childcare closures, the question is whether and to what extent childcare provision acted as a protective shield against child maltreatment before the crisis.
Sandner and Thomsen (2020) use temporal and spatial variation in a large expansion of early public childcare in Germany to analyse its effects on serious child maltreatment cases, which lead to out of home placement, for children aged 0-6. Their results show that maltreatment cases decline by 1.8% if a county increases childcare slots by one percentage point, and the effects are stronger in families where the father or stepfather is present. As males are more often perpetrators, the results suggest that childcare protects children by reducing their time spent with a potential perpetrator. The expansion started with almost zero coverage in 2002 and reached 27.4% in 2015, preventing approximately 20,000 maltreatment cases compared to a scenario with no childcare expansion.
Assuming that these findings would apply to the current situation, they suggest that in Germany, the current lockdown without any availability of childcare will result in a substantial increase in child maltreatment cases – roughly 4,200 if the closure were in place for a full year. These estimates will most likely increase, as they exclude children aged 4-17, who are also at risk of maltreatment due to primary and secondary school closures.
In addition, containment measures brought global economic activity to a halt, leading to higher unemployment.
Economic hardship is considered a strong predictor of child abuse and neglect. Lindo et al. (2018) investigate how gender-specific employment affects child maltreatment in California. They find that abuse and neglect cases decrease by 7-8% when male employment increases by one percentage point, while such cases increase by 8-12% when female employment increases by one percentage point. A potential channel for these findings is the time spent with children. Brown and De Cao (2020) instead study the impact of overall unemployment on child maltreatment using rich administrative data for most US counties. They estimate that a one percentage point increase in the unemployment rate leads to a 20% increase in neglect. This is equivalent to an additional 110 cases per year in the county with the median prevalence of neglect, which has 536 cases annually. As neglect is the failure to provide for a child’s basic needs, risking their health and wellbeing, the authors investigate and provide suggestive evidence for a direct income channel: a decrease in expenditure on basic goods (e.g. food and beverages). They also find that in states with longer unemployment benefits the effect of unemployment on neglect is mitigated.
Both Lindo et al. (2018) and Brown and De Cao (2020) rely on data that includes the 2008 economic recession. As the COVID-19 crisis is still unresolved, and there is every reason to believe that this downturn will be far deeper and longer than its predecessor, child maltreatment cases could burgeon.
Possible solutions to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on child maltreatment
- Earlier detection to favour quicker intervention: an immediate need is to encourage the reporting of maltreatment cases. As regular channels of reporting are disrupted (e.g. teachers), other forms of detection should be adopted, such as secure hotlines, outreach centres, and virtual options. Further training programs for professionals who usually report (e.g. educational, enforcement, and medical personnel) should be implemented to allow early identification of child maltreatment after lockdown measures are relaxed.
- Parental support and stress release measures: intensive home visiting programs to new mothers have been found to reduce child abuse and neglect (Olds 2007); some of these services could be carried out virtually during the lockdown (Conti et al. 2020). Civil society and organisations supporting children and adolescents can facilitate healthy parenting. In the long-run, resources are needed to support basic mental health and psychosocial services.
- Financial support for families at risk: welfare and safety net programs should be available particularly for the most vulnerable and for unmarried families (Paxson and Waldfogel 2002, 2003, Berger et al. 2016, Brown and De Cao 2020).
Children’s safety and needs should be at the forefront of discussions to mitigate the current and future effects of the pandemic. The immense potential costs of increased child maltreatment should be considered in cost-benefit calculations of lockdown measures. Finally, governments should work together with social care and health care providers to integrate child maltreatment into future disaster risk reduction and preparedness.
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UNICEF (2020), “COVID-19: Children at heightened risk of abuse, neglect, exploitation and violence amidst intensifying containment measures.”