School of Public Policy Researcher Explores Covid-19’s Impact on Child Welfare, Domestic Violence

Posted August 25, 2020

By Michael Pearson

The Covid-19 pandemic forced schools and businesses to shut down, left millions out of work, and cooped up many families inside their homes for months on end. It is a combination that has led to an increase in child abuse and neglect and domestic violence — often in families with no history of such problems, according to School of Public Policy Assistant Professor Lindsey Bullinger.

Bullinger’s current focus is on working to understand the pandemic’s impacts on child and family well-being.

“Covid-19 abruptly exposed a vast number of families who have never faced domestic violence and child maltreatment to stressors that are well-known to increase risk for these kinds of events,” Bullinger said. “So, this is affecting not just the children and families who are traditionally at risk, but also those who are completely new to this environment.”

Understanding the still-unclear linkages between stay-at-home orders and violence and abuse in the home is crucially important to give policymakers better tools to navigate the coming months of the pandemic, Bullinger said.

But the work has longer range implications, as well. Public health experts say outbreaks like Covid-19 could become increasingly likely as the planet grows warmer and more crowded, highlighting the importance of understanding how best to manage pandemic-related policies with an eye to reducing family violence and abuse.

Stay-at-Home Orders Increased Domestic Violence Calls

Bullinger has recently written two papers exploring pandemic-related impacts. One focuses on an increase in domestic violence during the spring stay-at-home order in Chicago. The second paper details findings about the link between stay-at-home orders and child maltreatment in Indiana.

The first paper, published Aug. 17 as a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, details findings from an examination of cell phone block-level activity data and crime data from the city of Chicago. The study, by Bullinger and co-authors Jillian Carr of Purdue University and Analisa Packham of Vanderbilt University, found Chicago’s stay-at-home order increased domestic-violence related calls for service by 7.5%.

The increase was largest in areas where people spent the most time at home and those with large proportions of married couples with children, rental households, and families who had not previously had a domestic-violence related police call at their homes. At the same time, formal domestic violence reports fell by 8.2% while arrests for such crimes fell by more than a quarter.

“Our findings speak to health tradeoffs inherent in policies to address the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. In particular, state and local governments should consider the costs and benefits of keeping first responders and the incarcerated population safe, while also taking into account the large direct costs to domestic violence victims,” Bullinger wrote in the study.

Risk Increased Most for Those Who Stayed Home the Most

In the Indiana study, which has been posted as a working paper by the Social Science Research Network , Bullinger and co-authors Kerri Raissian and Megan Feely from the University of Connecticut and Will Schneider of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign used early-release child maltreatment reports with mobile phone location data to analyze the impact of stay-at-home orders in Indiana on child maltreatment.

They found that the risk of child abuse and neglect increased the most among Indiana residents living in areas that stayed home more.

“One finding that surprised us is that areas most affected were those that are more affluent, less racially diverse, and have historically lower rates of maltreatment to begin with,” Bullinger said.

Finances, Lack of Access to Resources and Schools Likely Factors

What is driving these trends remains unclear, Bullinger said.

The pandemic’s financial fallout is one likely culprit. Pandemic-induced job losses and other financial difficulties are precisely the sorts of events that can lead to uncontrolled stress, anxiety, depression, and substance use and abuse, all risk factors for child maltreatment and domestic violence, Bullinger said.

The temporary closure of many government offices and a lack of government-sponsored safety nets in the early days of the U.S. outbreak also possibly contributed, as did the closure of many businesses, she said.

Domestic violence victims may also be finding it difficult to escape their abusers while everyone is stuck at home, Bullinger said. Most domestic violence is reported after the victim can flee the home.

And for children in at-risk families, being home from school is also risky. Schools are safer places for children at-risk of abuse at home. Teachers, counselors, and other school employees are among the most likely reporters of suspected abuse and neglect. But with schools closed, there are fewer opportunities for authorities to learn about and stop maltreatment during stay-at-home periods.

“None of this is to say that we should not do these stay-at-home orders,” Bullinger said. “Public health experts tell us that staying home is important and effective way to contain the Covid-19 virus, and it’s something we should be doing,” Bullinger said. “But appropriate precautions need to be coupled with the stay-at-home orders to protect and support vulnerable populations.”

Policy Implications

While it is too early to know what interventions may work, Bullinger said previous research suggests that protecting families’ financial security appears to be an important way to prevent domestic violence and child maltreatment.

“That means we should be providing unemployment insurance benefits, extending student loan forgiveness and eviction moratoriums, among other things,” she said. Paid sick leave that allows symptomatic workers to stay home without losing income likely also helps, , she said. Offering relief for families trying to juggle work and childcare may also curb child neglect, specifically.

Policymakers many also want to consider innovative efforts to reduce pandemic-related domestic violence, such as those in Chicago, Bullinger said.

There, city officials launched a partnership with a home rental company and hotels in the city to give domestic violence victims a place to stay.

The CARES Act pandemic relief legislation that went into effect in March looked to achieve some of those goals. But it is too early to say what impact such efforts have had on domestic violence and child maltreatment due to the pandemic, Bullinger said. That is in large part because more current data are still unavailable.

More Research Coming

Bullinger has two other pandemic-related studies in the works, both supported by the Covid-19 Rapid Response seed grant from Georgia Tech’s Office of Executive Vice President of Research.

One examines how the pandemic affected the jobs of field workers who had to suspend in-person visits to families’ homes to assess child maltreatment risks. Instead, they switched to virtual assessments.

The other is based on Georgia child maltreatment data and calls to a parenting resource call line. In that study, Bullinger wants to find out if parents are calling in more to get help with parenting strategies because of the pandemic.

Bullinger said it will be years before the full impact of the pandemic on family well-being is revealed, but that it is important to work rapidly to help policymakers make good decisions now, and in the future.

“We have to take the pandemic seriously and protect ourselves from this virus. At the same time, we need to think about the unintended consequences of closures of this magnitude and take steps to complement them with services and policies to support families and children facing vast challenges in uncharted territory.”

The School of Public Policy is a unit of the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts.

For more coverage of Georgia Tech’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, please visit our Responding to Covid-19 page.

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Lindsey Bullinger

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Michael Pearson