BOSTON — District attorneys are reporting an increase in child abuse and neglect cases, but the pandemic’s lingering impact on the state’s court system means fewer investigations are brought before judges in the state. State for prosecution.
That’s according to a new report from the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association, which cited 12,818 reports of child abuse or neglect in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2021, an increase of 4. 3% compared to the previous year.
Meanwhile, disruptions in the courts due to state-mandated shutdowns amid the pandemic have reduced the number of child abuse and neglect investigations, referrals to prosecution, and cases that are settled by the judicial system.
The number of child abuse and neglect referrals closed without prosecution fell more than 20% between fiscal years 2019 and 2021, while criminal cases that ended in conviction fell 40%, according to the report. association.
“It is important to note that the state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic was in effect during this reporting period and courthouses were open in limited capacity,” the report’s authors noted. “The pandemic has likely had an impact on the number of referrals, investigations, cases initiated and cases resolved in court.”
Rachel Gwaltney, executive director of the Children’s League of Massachusetts, said the data lays bare the impact of the pandemic on the investigation and prosecution of child protection cases.
“The pandemic has brought a complete halt to the normal flow of child protection cases from initial reports to treatment programs and court proceedings,” she said.
Admittedly, investigating and prosecuting cases is complicated, and advocates point out that the majority of abuses go unreported.
Prosecutors say the reasons why more cases are not moving forward vary. Some involve uncooperative families, a lack of proof of jurisdiction, psychological trauma to victims, an expired statute of limitations, or an unknown offender.
Many cases are referred to district attorneys by the state Department of Children and Families. Others come from the police, schools, victims and their families, according to the DA association.
Massachusetts has some of the strongest laws in the country on mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse. Teachers, doctors, nurses and daycare workers are threatened with fines and other penalties for failing to report allegations.
The state is also one of six that does not require physical evidence or corroborating reports to launch an investigation into abuse.
Changes to state law aimed at preventing human trafficking, which took effect in 2016, also require prosecutors to investigate any allegations of child sexual exploitation. Prosecutors say this has increased their caseload.
In the report, the MDAA called for more funding for investigators, victim-witness advocates, and prosecutors, and for changes in state policy to streamline the referral process.
Between 2016 and 2020, the number of investigated child abuse and neglect cases in Massachusetts dropped nearly 22%, from 79,335 to 62,829, according to the latest report. of the United States Department of Health and Human Services on child abuse.
Overall, reported child abuse cases in Massachusetts fell 28.7% between 2016 and 2020, from 31,624 to 22,538, the report notes.
Supporters point to new research showing that many of the support programs introduced during the pandemic — including extended unemployment benefits, expanded child tax credits and a moratorium on evictions — have helped ease family stress. which is often associated with child abuse and neglect.
“We hope the big lesson to be learned from the pandemic years will be that primary prevention works to keep children safe,” Gwaltney said.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group newspapers and websites. Email him at [email protected]