Will online schooling increase child abuse risks?

HLS Child Advocacy Program Director Elizabeth Bartholet ’65 and child welfare expert James Dwyer warn of dangers and call on officials to adopt new safeguards to protect children forced to learn at home

As many public schools across the United States announce plans to continue online learning in the fall due to the threat of the coronavirus pandemic, two leading child welfare experts are warning of increased risks of child abuse, as well as educational delays that will most directly impact lower-income families and communities of color.

Harvard Law School Professor Elizabeth Bartholet ’65, faculty director of the HLS Child Advocacy Program, has researched and written extensively about the dangers of homeschooling for a subset of children and argued in favor of effective regulation. James Dwyer holds the Arthur B. Hanson chair at the William & Mary School of Law, was a visiting professor at Harvard Law School in fall 2019, and is co-author of the recent book, “Homeschooling: The History and Philosophy of a Controversial Practice.” They are jointly planning a summit on homeschooling.

In an interview with Harvard Law Today, both say they sympathize with decisions made by local officials to continue remote learning to protect children and others from COVID-19. But they note that child abuse is apparently on the rise, as at-risk children have been kept out of sight of teachers and other mandated reporters of child abuse through the spring and summer. Bartholet and Dwyer also argue that school districts, child protective services, and other agencies across the nation must adopt new safeguards to prevent and respond to incidents of child maltreatment.


Credit: Martha Stewart Professor Elizabeth Bartholet ’65

Harvard Law Today: Most schools switched to online instruction in the spring. What do we know about the impact this change had on children’s education and welfare?

Jim Dwyer: I don’t think there is any evidence on the educational impacts yet, but there is a sound basis for the speculation that many education experts are making that most, if not all, children will fall behind to some extent, and that the impact will be disproportionately experienced by children in lower-resource families. We do have evidence of an impact on children’s safety and physical well-being. There have been more severe cases of child abuse occurring and many children are suffering from a lack of access to food as a result of not attending school. We also have reason to suspect that there is more widespread maltreatment that has not been showing up at the emergency room.

Elizabeth Bartholet: In terms of the impact on education, there is a widespread sense among educators and political leaders that kids are suffering educationally and that many of them will fall back in ways that will be hard ever to recover from. And as Jim says, low-income kids will be most affected.

I agree with Jim on the increased risk of child maltreatment, and I think it’s important to think in terms of different categories of parents. One category consists of those who have been reported in the past for child abuse and neglect. These are the classic at-risk families. In the past, their children were being seen by teachers who are mandated to report any suspected abuse to child protection services. Those parents are now under the increased stress that goes with unemployment, isolation, and the related risks of drug and alcohol problems. So, kids that were already in danger are at more risk now and it’s showing up in what the doctors are seeing in the emergency room, namely worse forms of injuries and higher death rates.

And now there’s a new category of parents with at-risk kids, those with no prior abuse history. A large proportion of all parents now are suffering extreme stresses related to COVID, including new concerns about their jobs, their housing, and their ability to feed their kids. Those stressors put the children at higher risk of maltreatment.

James Dwyer

Professor James Dwyer, William & Mary Law School

HLT: Now that it is becoming clear that many students will continue learning at home in the fall, what do you see as the potential future impacts?

Bartholet: I think the impacts we describe are just going to increase unless we do something about it. Everything Jim and I’ve described is going to get worse, with more kids being victimized, both in terms of education and abuse. Some child advocacy organizations have recognized this danger and called on schools, families, and communities to be especially supportive and watchful. For example, an organization called Massachusetts Citizens for Children, or MassKids, has been sounding the alarm.

Dwyer: I think there will be an escalation in the problems. A lot of parents have been holding on to the idea of the fall, thinking the kids will finally be back at school and the economy will rejuvenate. But now they’re hearing that schools are not going to reopen and many jobs are not yet coming back. That will create more despair, depression, anxiety on the part of parents. And I think children, especially the older ones, are suffering from the lack of socializing and experiencing mental health difficulties that could affect their interactions with their parents in ways that could exacerbate how parents treat their children.

Bartholet: Depression and even suicidal thinking among the adult population is increasing. The same has to be true of kids living with this uncertainty, in isolation, away from their friends, unable to do sports and other favorite activities.

HLT: Given all these negative effects, do you think more schools should be reopening more quickly?

Dwyer: The concerns we are expressing are not meant to say that keeping the schools closed and on virtual mode is the wrong decision. These risks must be balanced against children’s health needs and the safety of families and caregivers. But it points to real problems that the school closures are creating and that should be addressed.

Bartholet: Neither of us are pushing for opening more schools. I would advocate for a more cautious approach than many public policy leaders and educators are taking right now in making those decisions. I think our kids should stay at home until our society can get control of this virus. But then we really need to think about what educators and Child Protective Services (CPS) can do proactively to address the increased risks.

HLT: How well is the child welfare system working amid COVID-19? Are social workers still able to check in with at-risk children?

Bartholet: I’m really worried about that. The federal government has issued guidance saying that kids in foster care don’t need to be visited in person, and can instead be visited by some remote virtual method. Some child welfare agencies also have stopped in-person visits to children being monitored at home because of past abuse, and are just checking in by either video or telephone. It is appalling to think that a telephone call from a social worker could in any meaningful way monitor whether abuse or neglect is ongoing. Even if the kids are old enough to be on the phone, social workers have no way of knowing whether the abusive parent is standing one foot from the child as they talk.

We know that CPS agencies are already under-resourced and that everybody’s understandably scared of COVID. But social workers charged with monitoring families where kids are at risk for maltreatment should be understood to be essential workers. They can reduce the risk of in-person visits by requiring that children be brought to the door to be interviewed outside, out of the parents’ presence, so they dare be honest about what’s going on. Masking for both social workers and children would help protect against the virus.

Dwyer: Rates of maltreatment in foster care are very low. But the rate for children who’ve been reported as having previously been abused that are still in the parents’ home is quite high, and we don’t know to what extent CPS is monitoring them now. An additional problem is lack of visitation during lockdown between children in foster care and their parents or other relatives, which could cause courts to prolong reunification efforts and postpone permanency decisions.

Bartholet: Basically, I think what we’ve been describing is a situation where there’s a heightened risk to children for being abused and neglected at the same time as lots of child protective services agencies are pulling back on the protection they offer.

HLT: What recommendations can you share with public officials and school districts about how to keep children safe while they study from home during the pandemic?

Bartholet: My overall general recommendation is that educators and CPS agencies need to recognize the level of problems that kids at home are now facing in terms of risk of both education and maltreatment, and come up with some creative new solutions.

In terms of specifics, some teachers have developed a button that children can click on their screens while learning online at home to signal there’s a problem. This would enable the school to look into what is going on at home and report any suspected maltreatment issue to Child Protective Services for investigation.  In school districts doing hybrid learning this fall, and deciding which students to bring back into the classroom, the most vulnerable children should be prioritized, including children currently being monitored by CPS. Educators should develop systems to reach out to CPS. They should get the names of students CPS is monitoring, so they can look for signs of abuse or neglect. Teachers should also be flagging for CPS attention students who don’t show up for online classes.

CPS needs to be increasing its monitoring of families with prior histories of maltreatment, based on the increased risks the COVID crisis creates, rather than pulling back as so many seem to be.

Dwyer: My big picture point would be that it’s difficult for any agencies to do much these days because of reduced state revenues, because employees can’t come to work, and because they’re all scrambling to figure out how to deal with this crisis. But one message to legislators might be that, to the extent you have any play in funding, you need to redirect it to this very acute problem that children are at heightened risk of maltreatment at home.

CPS is limited in its ability, not only by financial limits, but also by its mandate. It can’t just wander around looking for maltreated children. It’s supposed to be reactive to reports, not knocking on every door. But it might alert the public for particular signs of maltreatment that are unique to this circumstance. And it might think about whether reports of certain types of situations or conduct should be interpreted a little differently than in the past.

In terms of the schools, school districts should all have their teachers at the very beginning of this school year talk with their students about how difficult a time this has been. The message could be: ‘You probably missed your friends and maybe it’s difficult being at home all the time. You can talk to a counselor about any part of that.” Then students should be given a private way to signal their desire to talk. Schools should be hiring a lot more counselors to do online or in person visits with children.

And then I think that school districts should be told that they need to be on the lookout for new homeschooling requests in the states where parents are supposed to notify or get any kind of approval, and have some interaction with those parents in order to assess the children’s situation. And as Betsy said, they should keep track of those who have not shown up to any classes or those who missed particular classes. In other words, they should take maximum advantage of both truancy laws and homeschooling laws, to find out what’s going on with kids who are not showing up to the online program on a regular basis.

HLT: Is there a role for the general public?

Bartholet: I think it is important to make the public aware that, in these unusual times, some of the normal protections for kids don’t exist, and that kids aren’t being seen by mandated reporters (such as teachers and doctors), who are a key piece of our child protection system. So, it’s up to you, the public. There’s a new responsibility on all of us to look after kids and to take action if we see something concerning.

Dwyer: Family members should also be given the message that, even if you don’t live next to your sister who has kids or near your grandchildren, you should be in more regular contact and ask to see the kids on Skype or talk to the kids on the phone.

Bartholet: In some states, everybody is a mandated reporter, and regular citizens are required to report suspected cases of abuse and neglect. Those states should publicize those laws.

HLT: Is there a chance that an increasing number of parents might want to homeschool now that they’ve been exposed to it for the first time?

Dwyer: I think there will be more interest. There are certainly some parents who have enjoyed spending more time with their children — I include myself among them. In a situation where it’s a choice between inadequate online instruction, paying for private schools, or having their kids home all the time and doing some homeschooling, I think a good number will choose the third option voluntarily, and consider it not so bad. And then a smaller number will say it’s actually great, and will keep doing it even after the public schools are open. I think those in that last category are probably less worrisome. There also might be some parents who’ve abused their children during this time and are afraid to have them go back to school even online and be seen by teachers, so might claim the homeschooling privilege for that reason.

Bartholet: I agree that there could very well be some increase. Some parents have discovered that public schools are worse than they thought, and have been surprised at how little their kids have been learning. I also know that Home School Legal Defense Association advocates, the main lobbying force for a subset of the homeschooling community that opposes all homeschooling regulation, are joyfully rubbing their hands at the prospect of what they think might be a very significant increase.

I think it’s hard to know how any increase in the homeschooling population might affect the prospects for the increased oversight that I think is important. Roughly three percent of the population is now homeschooled. Let’s say that increases to six percent post-COVID. Legislators and other policymakers may look at that and say, ‘Wow, now this is a big phenomenon, it may continue to grow. Of course, it shouldn’t be just this lawless world out there with no rules and regulations and oversight. Of course, this should be part of our overall regulated educational system.’

But it is also possible that some people who are homeschooling for the first time as a result of COVID think they’ve been doing way better than the public schools, are not used to being regulated in ways that hamper their freedom, and may therefore be resistant to any new regulation of homeschooling.