It is safe to say that without the benefit of hindsight, no child welfare agency got it totally right in responding to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. But Michigan child welfare director, JooYeun Chang, said that an unrelated assessment of her agency, finished months before the virus hit our shores, was fortuitous in helping to shape a creative response to COVID-19.
Chang, a former Obama official who spent years with Casey Family Programs working with states on reducing the use of foster care, is not prone to panicking about fewer removals, nor about a lower volume of requests to investigate families. But the sudden silence of the Michigan hotline, fueled largely by calls or messages from “mandated reporters” such as teachers or medical staff, gave her pause.
“There was a precipitous drop, from the first day,” she said. It would be one thing if the percentage of reports that were substantiated went way up – this might suggest that the best information was still getting through – but that was not the case.
“That led us to believe that in spite of increased need,” some children in need were “simply invisible to us.” This gets to a key flaw in the construct of child welfare, she said – “we are a reactive system and we wait for an actual experience of abuse or neglect to call in.”
But Chang was brought in by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) to help move Michigan’s system upstream, putting more money into efforts to mollify the family crises that often lead to abuse or neglect calls, or services to help families after a substantiation without using foster care.
Chapin Hall, a child welfare research and evaluation group based in Chicago, had just completed an assessment of the state’s system to help it maximize use of the Family First Prevention Services Act, a recently enacted overhaul of federal funds for child welfare.
The Family First Act, among other things, amends the Title IV-E entitlement program to include a federal match for state spending on certain foster care prevention services, including addiction treatment, parenting skills and mental health. Heretofore, the entitlement helped pay only for costs related to foster care and adoption, which many in Congress had come to view as a perverse federal incentive to unnecessarily break up families.
How the pandemic and its collateral economic damage impact Chang’s larger goals is uncertain. But she said the Chapin Hall assessment helped her craft the agency’s immediate response to COVID-19, because its aim was to hone in on the children and parents who could be served with the new federal match on prevention work.
The assessment had identified two key things: first, a quarter of the youth coming into Michigan foster care were in five zip codes, all within the Detroit city limits. Second, it had isolated the families who had already had some interaction with child welfare systems, and estimated their risk of eventually having a child removed from them under the status quo.
Based on Chapin Hall’s assessment, Chang said, there were about 14,000 families in this situation, and about 10,000 of those families would end up with a child in foster care unless the state had more resources to serve them before it got to that point. This was the point of the exercise: to get a clear picture of what Family First might mean in terms of reduced spending on foster care.
This gave Chang and her team an otherwise impossible look at some of the kids she feared would be “invisible” as schools closed, a stay-at-home order went into effect, and maltreatment reports plummeted.
Michigan probably won’t implement its Family First Act plan until next year, but with the assessment in hand, Chang said, “we tried to do something now.” And that started with calling all 14,000 families to check in and offer whatever support was possible.
With vastly lowered need to field and investigate new claims of abuse and neglect, Chang established a core team of 500 mostly young and healthy child protection workers who would continue to fill that mission, with a hazard pay bump. Another 1,000 workers were assigned to the call unit who would reach out to families known to the system.
“We had to take off the investigator hats, and put on our services and support hats,” she said. Callers were given a script to be used if they were nervous, and a cheat sheet of resources under subjects like nutrition, housing, substance use and crisis support to help steer families for certain needs.
“We reached [about] 60% of the families within the first 30 days,” she said. Investigators were instructed that unreturned calls were not grounds for any official report. As of July, 80 percent of the families had received a call, text or were mailed a packet of information about help available to them.
To Chang, what her investigators related from this push validated her view of a core challenge for families that COVID-19 had exacerbated. Many parents were tearfully thankful that someone had reached out, with some noting they had not even heard from family since the pandemic.
“One thing I feel real strongly about is that our families – more than they struggle with poverty or substance abuse disorders – I think the issue separating our families from others is extreme social isolation,” she said. “There is a lot of research showing that is what is most debilitating for many families.”