Child abuse reports increase with return of in-person school, Fairfax County says

The Fairfax County Government Center (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Reports of child abuse and neglect in Fairfax County have fluctuated wildly during the COVID-19 pandemic — based primarily on whether students are attending school in person or remotely.

Prior to the pandemic, Fairfax County Child Protective Services conducted 2,216 family assessments and investigations in fiscal year 2019, which ran from July 1, 2018 to June 30, 2019, according to the county’s Department of Family Services.

Those are the procedures used to respond to reports of child abuse and neglect, including physical abuse and neglect, mental or emotional abuse, medical neglect, and sexual abuse by a caretaker. Reports are screened by CPS’ hotline staff before a specialist is assigned.

Most reports deemed valid trigger a family assessment, but some require an investigation when the safety concerns are immediate, according to DFS spokesperson Angela Morlu.

The number of assessments and investigations dipped slightly to 2,113 in fiscal year 2020 (July 1, 2019-June 30, 2020) before a more substantial decline to 1,878 responses in fiscal year 2021.

“This decrease is almost exclusively due to a reduction in reports from schools (primarily due to the COVID pandemic’s impact on in-person instruction),” Morlu told FFXnow by email.

With nearly all Fairfax County Public Schools students resuming in-person classes this past August, reports of child abuse and neglect have skyrocketed. At the current pace, the county will reach 2,500 assessments and investigations for this fiscal year when it ends on June 30 — surpassing both pre-pandemic numbers and the 2,088 responses projected at the beginning of the year.

“Reports are increasing primarily due to the increased visibility of students returning to in-person instruction,” Morlu said.

Like at other public school districts, FCPS employees are required by state law to report suspected child abuse and neglect. When schools closed statewide in March 2020, the Virginia Department of Social Services saw a 98% decline in child welfare calls from schools, with calls from all sources dropping 45% between February and April 2020.

However, a national study released in October 2021 found that physical abuse of school-aged children tripled between March and September 2020, and the nonprofit Stop Child Abuse Now (SCAN) of Northern Virginia reported an increase in the severity of cases during the pandemic.

The isolation of the initial months of the pandemic created similar challenges for addressing domestic violence, which increased globally in 2020 to the point where the United Nations called violence against women in particular a “shadow pandemic.”

In Fairfax County, police reported a slight decrease in domestic assaults last year compared to 2020, but an uptick in adult children killing family members contributed to an increase in homicides.

According to DFS, more than 2,600 kids in Fairfax County got involved with Child Protective Services during fiscal year 2021. The CPS hotline received approximately 11,000 calls specifically for protective services, the Board of Supervisors said in a proclamation designating April as Child Abuse Prevention Month.

“Child abuse and neglect cuts across all demographic areas and impacts our entire community,” DFS says on its webpage for the occasion. “We know through research that adverse childhood experiences like child abuse result in long term health impacts and increased costs to society.”

The month’s theme this year is “Words Matter.” The county encourages the community to raise awareness about the issue of child abuse and urges parents and caregivers to build up their kids’ “sense of worth.”

Anyone who’s concerned about a child’s well-being, wants to report or talk about a possible abuse or neglect situation, or needs counseling and other resources can contact the Fairfax County Child Protective Services (CPS) Hotline at 703-324-7400, TTY 711.