Excerpted From: Stacy Metcalf, Kelli L. Dickerson, Jennifer Lavoie and Jodi A. Quas, The Covid-19 Pandemic and Lay Perceptions of Poverty and Neglect, 46 Law and Human Behavior 245 (August 2022) (3 Footnotes/References) (Full Document)


covid19The COVID-19 pandemic, also known as the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, led to significant and pervasive changes that upended the daily lives of families around the world. Mandates, including stay-at-home orders and social distancing requirements, were implemented to mitigate the spread of the virus. Though crucial to reducing the impact of the disease itself, those mandates also had serious economic and social implications. Unemployment rates, for example, rose to historic levels due to closures of nonessential businesses; decreased consumer spending; and massive reductions in vacation, travel, and entertainment. Even individuals who remained employed experienced uncertainties about their economic future or the stability of family members' jobs. Because of school closures and stay-at-home orders, social interactions drastically changed, especially within households. Parents and children interacted with each other more frequently than ever before, navigating challenges that were virtually nonexistent before the pandemic (e.g., remote learning, restrictions on activities, sharing small spaces), all at a time when employed parents were supposed to be working productively from crowded home settings. These circumstances, in combination, fundamentally changed the experiences of children and parents in ways that affected parenting practices, parent--child relationships, and how families engage with and are perceived by entire communities.

Unfortunately, for many families, one change associated with these circumstances was a dramatic increase in their level of poverty. Some parents were simply unable to provide for their children in the way that they could in the past--for instance, with adequate food, shelter, supervision, or support. A traditional challenge associated with parents and poverty, and one that existed before the pandemic, was that such parenting tendencies were often labeled as neglectful. That is, community members, who commonly report suspicions of maltreatment to social service agencies, tend to misidentify poverty as neglect and incorrectly believe that parents should be reported as a result. The COVID-19 pandemic may have changed community members' perceptions and reporting tendencies.

Although research efforts have begun to assess the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on both the incidence and severity of neglect, research has yet to consider how the pandemic has impacted perceptions of neglect, and, in turn, community members' likelihood of accurately identifying and reporting cases to social service agencies. The research described here, which capitalized on and extended work carried out before the pandemic, did just this.

Specifically, in two studies, we examined whether perceptions of neglect, as reflected in laypersons' ability to accurately identify and report legal neglect, shifted during the pandemic. Study 1 compared general perceptions between one set of laypersons who completed a survey before the COVID-19 pandemic began and a second set of laypersons who completed the same survey after the pandemic began. Study 2 then assessed how cues about the pandemic's effects on families' experiences with poverty influenced laypersons' perceptions of blame for a family's circumstances and, in turn, their ability to accurately identify and report cases of legal neglect.

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Our research provides new insight into factors that influence laypersons' ability to accurately identify and report cases of neglect and, in doing so, offers valuable information relevant to reducing over- and under-reporting of neglect. Although many laypersons were able to distinguish between situations with and without neglect, some continued to view situations of poverty as neglectful and as warranting a report to authorities. The tendency toward internal versus external attributions of blame helped to explain why laypersons perceived situations of poverty or neglect as neglectful and as situations that warrant reporting to CPS. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic had a significant, indirect impact on laypersons' identification and reporting decisions via attributions of blame. Understanding when and why individuals both recognize and report neglect is crucial for targeted education and intervention campaigns, especially when communities and society change in ways that alter how individuals encounter and evaluate potential victims and their situations.

Bradley D. McAuliff served as Action Editor.

Stacy Metcalf (iD) https://orcid.org/0000-0003-1167-9875

Kelli L. Dickerson (iD) https://orcid.org/0000-0002-1710-7651

Jennifer Lavoie (iD) https://orcid.org/0000-0002-2247-7905

Jodi A. Quas (iD) https://orcid.org/0000-0002-3789-3733