Child abuse and neglect worsens in Michigan, causing major worries during COVID-19 

By: - April 29, 2020 5:36 am

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In almost every county in the state, the number of children subject to abuse and neglect has increased, according to a new report by the Lansing-based think tank the Michigan League for Public Policy (MLPP).

From 2010 until 2018, the most recent year of data, the number of children in families investigated for abuse or neglect increased in 81 of 83 counties and increased by 71.8% statewide. The number of confirmed victims of child abuse and neglect increased by 33.7% statewide and 64 counties in the state saw an increase. And 51 counties saw an increase in children in out-of-home care and an increase of 3.7% statewide.

Emily Schuster-Wachsberger, the Michigan Children’s Trust Fund local council coordinator, said the spike in numbers could be attributed to better reporting.

“The numbers have gone up partly because there’s more reporting, which is actually a good thing,” she said. “We’ve been doing a lot of mandated reporter training across the state. And even though it may sound like a negative, because we have larger numbers, in a way, it’s a positive because we’re actually becoming more aware of cases out there where child abuse and neglect are taking place.”

Overall, Michigan saw a large rise in families being investigated for child abuse or neglect. 

Seven counties saw a rate increase in investigated families of over 150%, including Alcona County, Clare County, Gladwin County, Huron County, Jackson County, Keweenaw County and Presque Isle County.

Only two counties, Leelanau and Luce, saw a decrease in investigated families. 

Although the most recent data available on child well-being in Michigan does not incorporate the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, Kelsey Perdue, MLPP Kids Count Project director, said that these numbers are especially worrisome considering the number of children quarantined at home with abusive parents. 

“I think that some of these outcomes for child abuse and neglect are really some of the most sobering and concerning, particularly when we think about COVID-19,” Perdue said. “More families and children are at home experiencing social isolation and experiencing increased financial hardship and stress. These numbers were already really scary even before COVID-19.”

Schuster-Wachsberger said that with the closures of schools, churches and many doctor appointments moving online during the COVID-19 pandemic, children are left without trusted adults to report abuse to.

“So all of these people who are mandated reporters and who would be in a position to report, they’re not seeing these children,” she said. “And I will tell you, I would not be surprised if after this crisis is over and we begin to socialize with each other again that the numbers will surge.”

However, Perdue says there is now a stronger need and opportunity for better data and understanding around child abuse and neglect. Some of the potential data the MLPP recommends going forward includes data that separate abuse from neglect and data that shows the source of neglect. 

For example, current available data does not show a strong causation between lack of economic security and neglect. 

“If we know that, then we know how then we can better help and support families and keep them together as opposed to punishing and separating them,” Perdue said. 

MLPP spokesperson Alex Rossman said in a statement Wednesday that business closures and job losses related to COVID-19 will have a significant impact on Michigan parents and their kids, putting even greater emphasis on safety net programs, food security, health care and child abuse and neglect prevention.

Although the data can’t prove any strong causation between poverty and child abuse or neglect, Perdue said there are definitely correlations with households where parents suffer from substance abuse or depression.

“Those children in those households are more likely to become victims of abuse or neglect,” Perdue said. “And when parents don’t have access to resources and support systems because of lack of economic security or robust insurance, for example, then it makes it hard for them to address those challenges and provide for their children.”

However, the new report shows that childhood poverty has gone down in most counties; yet there is still a spike in child abuse and neglect. 

“Even just looking at those two data point, I think you have to look deeper into child abuse and neglect itself,” Perdue said. “Though we do know that poverty does not cause abuse and neglect, it can make for a more stressful and strained situation within that household.”

To improve the situation around child abuse and neglect, the MLPP suggests the state and federal government provide more economic support and relief for families, as well as investing in abuse and neglect prevention programs. 

In October, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services expanded eligibility for food assistance and other public benefits, which the MLPP calls a “win.”

Now families can have up to $15,000 in assets and still be eligible for assistance through these programs. Prior to the policy change, asset limits ranged from $500 for State Emergency Relief, to $3,000 for the Family Independence Program and other cash assistance programs, to $5,000 for food assistance. 

“Now a lot more families in need have access to some of those critical programs,” Perdue said. “These are huge wins that really make a difference for families, help to make ends meet and to give them pathways to success.”

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Allison R. Donahue
Allison R. Donahue

Allison R. Donahue is a former Michigan Advance reporter who covered education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8.