PROVIDENCE — More than 80 percent of child abuse cases in Rhode Island in 2021 were classified as “neglect,” according to a new report.
Among the allegations of abuse reported to the state Department of Children, Youth, and Families last year, approximately 41 percent were linked to a lack of supervision and 23 percent were due to children being exposed to domestic violence.
About 200 cases of neglect were due to inadequate food or shelter and more than 180 cases were linked to drug and alcohol abuse in the home, according to a new report by Rhode Island Kids Count.
About 11 percent of all abuse cases were linked to physical abuse while 5 percent were linked to sexual abuse, the report said, similar to 2020′s data.
For the last two years, children have largely been shielded from adults outside of their own household who could notice warning signs of abuse or neglect. The pandemic shut down schools and child care centers, boxing out teachers and school staff from seeing daily changes in students. Even when they did reopen in person, after-school programs, sports, and other extracurricular activities were limited. This new data shows that maltreatment reports of child abuse and neglect significantly declined in 2021.
There were 14,876 child maltreatment reports brought to the attention of the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth, and Families in 2021, compared to 16,195 reports in 2020 and more than 19,400 reports in 2019.
“The stress of the pandemic and the related loss of employment, housing, and hunger; the lack of available child care; and domestic violence victims being stuck at home with their abusers likely resulted in increased incidences of child neglect and abuse, but we do not see this in reports,” Katherine Chu, a spokeswoman with Kids Count, told the Globe Monday.
Over the course of the last 10 years, reports of maltreatment to DCYF reached its peak in 2018 with 21,837.
“Some of this decline is likely due to prevention efforts, but it is also likely due to the effects of pandemic-related school and child care closures and the suspension of other activities,” Chu said. “During this time, children were not with other caring adults who could notice warning signs.”
But without the early signs, many situations likely escalated and resulted in a child being injured and ending up in the emergency department or being hospitalized. In 2019, there were 88 emergency department visits and 40 hospitalizations in Rhode Island. In 2020, there were 102 emergency department visits and 98 hospitalizations due to abuse. Each year, less than five children died in Rhode Island due to neglect or abuse (the state does not release exact numbers less than five).
Data for 2021 has not yet been released.
“All children deserve to have their basic needs met in normal times and in times of crisis,” said Elizabeth Burke Bryant, executive director of Rhode Island Kids Count. “The devastating effects of the pandemic fell on the shoulders of our most vulnerable children and families.”
The rate of child neglect and abuse per 1,000 children under 18 was nearly twice as high in the four cities of Central Falls, Pawtucket, Providence, and Woonsocket (about 16.5 victims per 1,000 children), where the child poverty rate is also the highest.
Throughout 2021, about 43 percent of the victims of child neglect and abuse were young children ages 5 and younger and 32 percent were ages 3 and younger. This data also echoes national numbers, according to Kids Count, where very young children are more likely to experience neglect and abuse rather than older children.
But abuse that occurs in the first three years of a child’s life “often disrupts the development of trusting, secure relationships, and infants and young children who have been maltreated need special attention and services to get on track for positive development,” the report said.
“Now more than ever, we need to ensure that we provide the funding to support the community-based providers that provide the mental health services, prevention services, and Early Intervention services children need to be safe and supported,” Bryant said.