Reports of child abuse and neglect in Minnesota have dropped sharply during the coronavirus pandemic, which has eased strain on the child welfare system while spurring fears that problems are going unnoticed while children are away from school.

New data from the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) show that, during the first eight months of the pandemic, local child protection agencies received 22% fewer reports of child maltreatment over the same period in 2019. That, in turn, has contributed to a sharp drop in the number of children being separated from their families and placed into foster care.

The numbers confirm what many educators, families and child welfare advocates had suspected: that shutdowns of schools and fewer eyes on children during the pandemic would lead to fewer reported incidents of maltreatment. Teachers and school staff are among the leading reporters of abuse, calling for help when they spot abnormal bruising or other signs. Now many educators only see kids online, and the cameras are often turned off.

Normally a steep drop in child maltreatment reports would be welcome news. But the decline could be a sign that abuse and neglect are going undetected behind closed doors, and scores of children may be trapped in dangerous households during the pandemic. Many of the stresses resulting from the pandemic — isolation, job loss and rising levels of hunger — can overwhelm families and lead children to experience more harm at home, not less, say child welfare experts. Research from the last economic downturn in the late 2000s showed a link between financial hardship and child abuse, particularly cases of abusive head trauma.

"Kids are hidden from view and God only knows what is happening to them," said Rich Gehrman, director of Safe Passage for Children, a child protection watchdog group. "Families are under increased pressure and we're not necessarily going to know about incidents of abuse while schools aren't in session."

At the same time, child welfare authorities cautioned against drawing quick conclusions about the recent trends, noting that the decline in maltreatment reports could reflect years of stepped-up efforts around abuse prevention. Seven years ago, public confidence in the state's child protection system was badly shaken by a series of high-profile failures, which led to sweeping changes and a renewed focus on prevention. Counties hired thousands of child protection staff and social workers and began to intervene sooner to address underlying issues, such as housing insecurity and substance abuse.

And since the pandemic began, the state has been summoning new resources to help struggling families stay with their children and to prevent conditions in homes from spiraling out of control. The Department of Human Services expanded eligibility for the state's Parent Support Outreach Program, which provides community resources to meet basic needs, as well as help with child care, medical care, mental and chemical health services for families under stress.

The DHS also provided contact information to local agencies for more than 10,000 at-risk children that had child protection cases closed during the six months before the pandemic — to help prevent them from falling through the cracks.

"The lack of visibility of seeing into families right now because of the pandemic has been concerning," said Nikki Farago, interim deputy commissioner at the DHS. "We are trying to address the underlying impacts that we have seen from the pandemic and the economic downturn."

From March through October of 2019, Minnesota's child protection agencies received 57,440 reports of child abuse and neglect. In the same period last year, that number was 44,865, a decrease of 22%. There was also a sharp decrease, of 27%, in the number of children being removed from their homes because of maltreatment and placed in foster care — continuing a promising trend that began in 2019, according to DHS data.

The link to school shutdowns appears to be borne out by the numbers: The state saw a steeper, 32% drop in child maltreatment reports between March and June after classrooms closed, but reports bounced back somewhat this fall after some schools, especially in greater Minnesota, reopened to in-person instruction.

But it's not just school closures driving the drop in abuse reports, say child welfare workers. Because children are more isolated at home, they are not interacting as much with youth sports coaches, camp counselors, clergy, pediatricians and others who might be in a position to spot and report abuse. In Minnesota, professionals who are "mandated reporters," or those bound by law to report abuse, account for 4 out of 5 reports of child maltreatment.

The pandemic also has upended the way front-line child protection workers investigate reports of abuse or neglect. They are now relying more on referrals from relatives and local law enforcement, and are conducting more interviews with families remotely rather than making in-person visits to homes.

In his more than 30 years as a child protection investigator in northern Minnesota, Dennis Frazier has seen a wide range of horrors during house visits: children with broken bones left untreated, infants crawling on floors littered with animal feces, and loaded guns lying within reach of kids. He has seen children who are hungry and with such severe diaper rashes they needed medical attention. But what concerns him most during the pandemic is what he is not seeing — now that most of his interactions are done remotely.

"It's hard to investigate what you can't see," said Frazier, who works for St. Louis County and is president of AFSCME Local 66 in Duluth, which represents 2,000 public-sector workers in northern Minnesota. "You can tell a lot just by going into a home and seeing how the dogs are acting, if food is in the fridge and if the kids are a priority. You can't get the full picture from a [computer] monitor."

But not everyone wants Minnesota's child welfare system to return to the way it was before the pandemic. Many Black parents and civil rights attorneys maintain the pendulum in recent years has swung too far against parents and keeping families together, and that too many children were being removed from stable homes without adequate cause. They have pointed to deep and persistent disparities in the county-administered system: In 2019, Black children in Minnesota were 2.6 times more likely to be removed from their birth parents than white children, and American Indian children were 16.8 times more likely, according to a state report.

"The idea that having more eyes on poor Black and Brown families is the only way to keep communities safe is messed up and offensive," said Joanna Woolman, a law professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law and executive director of the school's Institute to Transform Child Protection.

Long before the pandemic, the opioid crisis had been wreaking havoc on children's lives across the state, and there are few signs the problem has abated. In fact, drug overdoses have accelerated, both in Minnesota and nationally, during the pandemic, federal figures show. Parents' substance abuse accounts for nearly 1 of 3 children being removed from their homes in Minnesota, compared with just over 1 in 10 a decade ago, state reports show.

The ongoing drug epidemic is among the reasons that children are lingering in foster care for much longer periods, extending the trauma of separation from birth parents. Recovering from substance abuse can take years, and relapses are common, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic because many treatment centers have shut down or limited in-person visits. Statewide, the median length of time that children spend in foster care has swelled from 297 days in 2017 to 423 days as of October 2020. "There are kids who desperately need to get out of their home environments, but they're stuck in this pandemic quagmire and no one wants them," said Hoang Murphy, a former schoolteacher and executive director of Foster Advocates, a St. Paul-based nonprofit.

Chris Serres • 612-673-4308

Twitter: @chrisserres