A checklist for investigating child abuse during COVID-19
Shelter-in-place orders are keeping children in their homes, which is where the majority of abuse and domestic violence occurs
Businesses, schools and government buildings have all been shut to increase social distancing and slow the spread of the coronavirus. Because of this, everyone, including violent and abusive individuals have been forced to stay at home behind closed doors. This has created hardships for everyone but even more so for at-risk children because behind closed doors is where the majority of child abuse occurs.
We like to think of homes as safe spaces but for many people that is not the case. Child abuse doesn’t typically occur in public and for the most part, is perpetrated by the victim’s family and friends. Research into child maltreatment has found that in approximately 80% of cases, the parents are responsible for the abuse and in over 90% of cases, the perpetrator is known to the child. 
Moreover, everyone, including people prone to abuse children, is under more stress now than ever. I’ve investigated hundreds of child abuse cases and have found that abusers tend to be people with poor coping skills who often see their children as burdens preventing them from doing whatever it is they want to do with their life (it can be as simple as playing video games and using drugs all day). The abuse occurs when the abuser decides to take their frustrations out on the child whose only mistake is being present at the time of the outburst. A loss of income or having to deal with the kids all day because they’re not at school are stressors that can lead to more abuse.
The National Children’s Alliance estimates that 700,000 kids are abused annually in the United States. Even that number is likely low because it’s difficult, if not impossible, for children, especially for younger children, to contact authorities on their own. Although necessary to fight the spread of COVID-19, stay-at-home orders have forced many children to spend time in what is the most dangerous place they know, their home.
Who can kids tell?
Because we know that child abuse is often an underreported crime, most states have mandatory reporting laws. The laws vary state to state but generally speaking, if you are a professional who works with children and you suspect a child is being abused and/or neglected, you have a legal obligation to report it to law enforcement or child protective services.
Many abuse cases have come to light because an astute counselor, pediatrician or teacher has observed possible signs of abuse. In my experience investigating crimes against children, the school systems play a major role in discovering children who have been abused or neglected. They see the children every day, which gives them a baseline for a child’s typical behavior so they can notice any changes. It also gives them time to build a rapport that allows a child to feel safe discussing what is going on at home. For many children, going to school is the only time they are fed regularly or a caring adult pays attention to them.
Current COVID-19 restrictions have taken that lifeline away. Children aren’t going to school, they aren’t seeing counselors and they aren’t interacting with friends and neighbors, all of whom might normally be in a position to offer help to the child. Child Protective Services workers who investigate reported complaints are also not out in the community looking for child abuse.
So, who does that leave to be in a position to make a difference in an abused child’s life? As usual, the patrol officer is on the front line. Officers need to be extra vigilant in looking for signs of children being abused and/or neglected.
What to look for
As a general rule, child abuse doesn’t occur in a vacuum and is not a one-time occurrence.
Neglect is the most common form of child maltreatment. Neglect is also something that can usually be seen and observed.
Start by observing any children you come across on radio runs or traffic stops:
- How is the child's hygiene?
- Does the child appear to have been bathed recently?
- Do the child's teeth look reasonably healthy?
- Does the child appear to have been fed?
- Is the child wearing clothes that are appropriate for the weather or wearing excess clothing to hide an injury?
- Does the caregiver’s behavior change if you attempt to speak with or see the child?
- If the child is older, do they appear to be developmentally appropriate for their age?
In one case I worked, we observed a six-year-old child in the home wearing a diaper because the parents had never bothered to teach him to use the toilet. Further investigation showed he was being physically abused as well.
Another thing to keep in mind during calls is that the inside of our homes is a good reflection of what we care about. If you enter my home and see football memorabilia everywhere, it’s reasonable to conclude I like football even if I claim to hate the sport. Likewise, if I swear up and down that I love my toddler but my floor is covered in rubbish, drug paraphernalia and other hazardous materials, you can reasonably conclude I don’t care about that child since toddlers spend all their time on the floor and mine is one big death trap.
Children suffer accidental injuries all the time as a result of normal kid activities. Abusers know this and will often attempt to use routine accidents as a cover for their abuse. Any significant injuries in a small child warrant further investigation. Officers can uncover potential abuse with simple questions about the injury itself.
If the injury was accidental, the caregiver should be able to provide a reasonable explanation for how it occurred. If the caregiver's account is inconsistent with the severity of the injury or they deny the seriousness of the injury, more investigation is needed.
Another important aspect of injuries is if the caregiver sought medical attention in a reasonable amount of time.  If their child was severely injured on accident, why would there be a delay in getting the child proper care? Delay in care is usually because the abuser is afraid of being caught and is taking the time to formulate a plan before the authorities get involved. Officers have to be vigilant because kids are often unable to or are too afraid to speak for themselves, especially when they know that everyone has been ordered to stay inside.
The final thing officers should be on the lookout to combat child abuse is domestic violence in general. Nationwide there has been an upswing in reported domestic violence calls since COVID-19 restrictions have been put in place. 3 People are under stress and being forced to stay at home with each other. For households that struggle with domestic violence already, this is only going to make things worse. Academic research into the topic has shown a strong correlation between domestic violence and child abuse. Studies have shown that the overlap between spousal abuse and child abuse is anywhere from 25% to 100% depending on how you define child abuse. 
To put it in street cop terms, if you are talking to a jerk who beats up their significant other, odds are they are also beating the kids.
1. National Children’s Alliance. National Statistics on Child Abuse.
2. Christian CW. The evaluation of suspected child physical abuse. Pediatrics, 2015, 135:5.
3. Police1.com. Police nationwide report rise in domestic violence calls.”
4. Jouriles E, McDonald R, Slep A, Heyman R, Garrido E. Child abuse in the context of domestic violence: Prevalence, explanations, and practice implications. Violence and Victims, 2018, 23. 221-35.