Experts, researchers weigh in on what the data has told us.
In a wood- and marble-paneled Washington, D.C., hearing room last month, President Joe Biden’s nominee for a top child welfare post delivered a stunning number to United States senators: Despite all the devastation families experienced following the emergence of COVID-19, there were roughly 1,000 fewer children in the Oregon foster care system when compared with two years prior.
Rebecca Jones Gaston cited “a strategic plan focused on well-being and prevention that has already yielded results.”
The senators presiding over the hearing did not ask follow-up questions about the four-figure drop. But recent federal data confirms that Oregon was not alone — and the contributing factors were myriad and unforeseen.
Nationwide, foster care numbers dropped dramatically in the first months of the pandemic. There were 426,566 children in the system on Sept. 30, 2019. One year later, that number was 407,493, according to the federal government’s annual tally released late last year.
The declines were especially steep in the northeastern states of New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and New York — regions where the coronavirus struck hard early on, isolating millions of families in their homes away from the eyes of teachers, police officers and doctors.
As with all American institutions, the child welfare system was upended: Courts shuttered, delaying the termination of parental rights and adoptions. Families couldn’t visit each other in person. Social workers couldn’t knock on doors. Parents couldn’t access court-ordered drug treatment and services they needed to complete to bring their children home.
The child welfare field is still pondering the impacts. Did the pandemic hide child maltreatment within family homes while public institutions were temporarily closed? Did government relief efforts like expanded food stamps, eviction moratoriums and stimulus checks help protect children from harm? Or did the public health crisis mainly exacerbate the isolation and stress families were already feeling, increasing the likelihood of maltreatment?
The emotional impacts of the era are not tracked in data sets.
“It breaks my heart that I can’t see my child right now,” a 39-year-old home health aide in northern California told The Imprint in 2020. The pandemic had delayed the court hearing needed to finalize her reunion with her 1-year-old daughter in foster care.
After a seven-month separation, their relationship had been reduced to video chats.
“She sees me on the screen and then she’s looking around to see if I’ll pop out,” she said. “She’s reaching out to me, she wants to grab me but she can’t. She tries. It’s a very unbearable thing.”
A Minnesota father, Charles Redding, told a reporter about his race with court-ordered timelines to reunify with his two kids, after being released from jail during the pandemic. In a shut-down society, he had to find affordable housing for three, attend online classes without a computer and drug test at a center that had shut down.
“The timelines haven’t stopped, but everything else has,” said Rachelle Stratton, Redding’s attorney. “Is that fair to families? Are kids going to look back and say, ‘My dad couldn’t finish his case plan in the middle of a pandemic, so they terminated his rights’”?
What the numbers show
The federal child welfare report released in November offered a wide view on the early stages of the public health crisis: During the first six months of the pandemic, the number of children entering foster care dropped by 14%. That was accompanied by a decline in numerous other child well-being indicators, including reports of child abuse and neglect, maltreatment investigations, substantiated allegations, and even child fatalities, which fell by an estimated 4%, according to another federal report released in January.
Nearly two years ago, before the data emerged, there were ominous predictions of what would happen to vulnerable children in a shut-down society.
The leaders of UNICEF and the World Health Organization issued a joint statement in April 2020 warning that coronavirus prevention measures were “also exposing children to increased risk of violence.” The Washington Post interviewed pediatricians nationwide, reporting that same month that “In a world without school, doctors and advocates say, no one is there to watch, to speak up, until it’s too late.” And in June, The New York Times reported “some confirmed reports” that “depict nightmarish scenarios in which children are virtually trapped by abusive or neglectful adults.”
Citing small, short-term samples, researchers also pointed to troubling signs of hidden harm.
A study based on an online parent survey conducted in late April of 2020 was published under the title “The Perfect Storm: Hidden Risk of Child Maltreatment During the Covid-19 Pandemic.” Another research team reported a 14% increase in calls to one nonprofit’s child helpline. Late last year, scholars at an American Academy of Pediatrics conference presented widely discussed data from a larger sample showing child abuse victims age five and older at nine midwestern pediatric trauma centers increased from 36 to 103 in the early months of the pandemic.
Yet in late 2020, nationwide data reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed a decline in the overall numbers of emergency department visits for suspected child abuse and neglect. And last month, pediatric specialists from western states reported “no significant differences in child physical abuse cases” in pediatric trauma centers before or after the pandemic began. The group noted, however, that there could have been less reporting and detection, and a delay in injuries showing up in the hospital.
In response to the conflicting findings, some leading child welfare officials have urged caution until comprehensive data become available.
“We can’t just assume because parents have to spend 24/7 with their kids, that there’s going to be more abuse,” Assistant Secretary to the U.S. Administration for Children and Families Lynn Johnson told the Associated Press last year.
New York City’s former Administration for Children’s Services Commissioner David Hansell told his city council as much last June.
“I’m happy to say we really haven’t seen any indicators” of an increase in undetected child abuse,” Hansell testified. “It could be a very positive thing for children to be spending more time with their parents at home.”
Experts weigh in
The first look at how the nation’s decentralized, state-run child welfare systems pulled back in the early days of a historic public health crisis can be found in two federal reports. Released in November and January, they are based on the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System and the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System.
Of the half-dozen leading scholars of social work, sociology and pediatrics interviewed by The Imprint, some see positive outcomes from the recent scaling back of foster care, which — while providing temporary relief in a crisis — can cause lifelong and intergenerational trauma that disproportionately impacts communities of color.
That sentiment was evident in a paper published by the Columbia Journal of Race and Law. It described the “unintended abolition” of New York City’s shrunken child welfare system during the pandemic as freeing “almost exclusively poor Black and Latinx families” from punitive surveillance — without a surge in abuse allegations once schools reopened.
The trend was accompanied by boosted government benefits during the crisis, an unprecedented effort to stave off hunger, homelessness and desperation among countless Americans, those who typically land in foster care courts.
“The safety net was restored to a lot of families who found themselves with food and housing insecurity. There wasn’t a stigma to seek needs that were being more freely distributed,” said Angelique Day, a professor in the University of Washington’s School of Social Work. “All of those together led to a reduction of child removal and could provide a vision for reform.”
Other scholars said the federal data is inconclusive and easily overinterpreted. They urge caution about reading too much into the small window of data, in such an unprecedented year.
“I am definitely open to the idea that child maltreatment didn’t change at all. I would be surprised if it declined,” said Sarah Anne Font, a Pennsylvania State University associate professor of sociology.
But she added that not all children benefited from expanded unemployment, since many parents accused of child abuse are unemployed. She also said with or without stimulus checks and the child tax credit, drug dependence — one of the main drivers of maltreatment cases — appears to have increased during the pandemic.
Font, a former child maltreatment investigator, said it could be years before some abuse cases come to light.
“That doesn’t mean kids are fine,” she said. “It just means CPS often conducts poor investigations, makes bad decisions and provides either no services or services that are ineffective.”
What if maltreatment went down
A December commentary published by JAMA Pediatrics urged more optimism, pointing to the strength, not the fragility, of family resiliency during the pandemic. Co-authors Dr. Robert Sege and Dr. Allison Stephens of Tufts Medical Center and Tufts Children’s Hospital argue that increased child abuse admissions at some pediatric trauma wards in 2020 were a likely consequence of general hospitals diverting cases to clear beds for COVID-19 patients.
Sege and Stephens point to a survey of families conducted by the American Academy of Pediatrics that also suggested eviction moratoriums and other federal safety net support could have gone a long way in reducing parental family stress during the pandemic. Sege, who is a Professor of Medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine, said after his commentary was published, he heard disbelief from some child welfare professionals who disputed his argument.
“What if we said maltreatment really did go down?” Sege said he challenged his colleagues to consider. “That points to things we can do much more effectively as a field to reduce child abuse. We need to consider the possibility of success.”
Other scholars agree that due to the extraordinary nature of the pandemic, the true meaning of the decline in foster care numbers — after years of increases nationwide due in part to the opioid crisis — may not be known for a long while.
“The effect of COVID on the child welfare system may be something we don’t understand for 10 years,” said Fred Wulczyn, senior research fellow at the Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago. He noted there are still critical questions about “how well our human-built systems hold up to these calamities.”
Kari Lydersen contributed to this report.