The curtains are down on another year defined by the coronavirus pandemic. The U.S. was nearing 350,000 deaths when Youth Services Insider penned the 2021 version of this yearly column; today, we have passed 830,000.
But 2021 also saw a changing of the guard in Washington, with President Joe Biden beginning to staff up a child welfare team at the Department of Health and Human Services (not much doing on juvenile justice thus far at the Justice Department). The year was also marked by conversations about racial disproportionality in both child welfare and juvenile justice, parents’ rights, and the role of relatives and other kin in caring for America’s children.
What will 2022 bring? Following are a few things Youth Services Insider will have its eye on.
The Workforce Spiral
High turnover in child welfare and juvenile justice, particularly on the front lines of both fields, is not a new problem. But it has been put into overdrive in some parts of the country by the Great Resignation, which has seen millions of workers opt out of the workforce entirely for a time, or to pursue new career options.
The related economic pressures have forced wages up around the country, which is an accommodation far easier for the for-profit market to handle. For nonprofits that rely on contracts from the government, it’s hard to just raise wages to be competitive because you are tied to the contracted amount you are getting. And as the organization Social Current (formerly the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities) has done well to document over the years, much of the human services sector operates on a razor-thin margin: 40 percent lack operating liquidity, and nearly a third do not have enough cash on hand to survive for more than a month, according to a 2018 report.
Government agencies are also not well positioned to respond quickly to wage-related crises, although we have already seen at least one state, Kentucky, rush to desperately raise social worker pay to avoid losing those employees to other pursuits or to nearby states like Ohio, Indiana or Illinois, where the base pay is better.
A number of child welfare leaders have told Youth Services Insider this year that people are leaving frontline jobs in the field, and either going somewhere else in the social work field for more money and/or less stress. And providers are pretty helpless in offering a ton of incentives to stay or to recruit new workers.
This can all spiral out even more as jobs go unfilled, because the workforce that remains is spread thinner, creating higher caseloads that become seemingly impossible to handle in a way that ensures the safety of children or that families are well supported. And that, in turn, prompts more people to leave who might not have otherwise.
Many systems are also struggling to recruit new foster families in uncertain times, and face financial pressures to avoid the frequent use of congregate care. It all points toward an ominous near-term reality of systems having too few workers out in the community, and too few places for the most at-risk kids to live.
One veteran executive at a multi-service provider put it this way: “We are on the cusp of a cataclysmic situation.”
The darkest moment for child welfare in 2021 was the killing of Ma’khia Bryant, an Ohio teen who was shot by police during a fight outside of her foster home in which Bryant was approaching another girl with a knife.
Much of the media attention focused on the complicated tragedy of Bryant’s death. Less attention was paid to the fact that she never really needed to be living outside of her family. Jeanene Hammonds, Bryant’s grandmother, had taken her in along with three siblings when their mother couldn’t take care of them. She received far less financial support than a licensed foster parent, and when she was evicted for having too many people living in an apartment, the system did nothing to help her find a place where the family could stay intact.
The rhetorical deference to kinship care — now widely accepted as the next preference if children must be removed — is far ahead of the concrete support for it, and Bryant’s story was the most visceral example of it in 2021. The past two years have seen a fervent discussion brewing about what has come to be known as “hidden foster care,” where kin are asked by child protective services to care for children without the formality, and often the support, of a court-ordered removal.
The Family First Prevention Services Act, which took effect nationwide in 2021, offers new federal funds to help systems prevent foster care in some cases. It envisions that kin will be relied on to care for children in some of these prevention cases, which would seem to be the first formal recognition of hidden foster care in federal policy. Advocates have brought this to the attention of Congress and the Biden administration; we’ll see if there is any interest in ensuring that kin are supported regardless of how they are called on by child welfare to help.
Pulaski County Child Welfare
As Youth Services Insider has covered, there is a new consulting group focused entirely on helping state, county or tribal child welfare systems that wish to completely rethink the way they are doing business. Housed at Public Knowledge, Family Integrity & Justice Works was founded by two former Children’s Bureau officials — Jerry Milner and David Kelly — and recently added Jey Rajaraman, former head of parent defense at Legal Services of New Jersey and a staunch national advocate for pre-petition support for families.
The group took an ambitious first client: Pulaski County, Arkansas, home to Little Rock, where foster care entries have skyrocketed during the pandemic and the entire frontline workforce turned over in 2021. The Arkansas Division of Children and Family Services wants help in putting out the fire locally, but is also interested in seeding some statewide ideas for handling hotline calls and involving the community.
There’s a lot at stake for Family Integrity & Justice Works as well. If it can help turn around a system by actually remolding it instead of just reforming it, the line of potential clients could grow substantially.
Los Angeles County Juvenile Justice
In 2020, the most populous county in America appeared poised to be making one of the most significant overhauls in the history of juvenile justice. At the center of the Youth Justice Reimagined plan championed by the county Board of Supervisors: a complete rewrite of how juvenile probation works, with most youth diverted from it entirely increased spending on community alternatives to incarceration; and the shuttering of the county’s existing juvenile facilities in favor of smaller, therapeutic-oriented programs.
In 2021, hopes for a comprehensive new approach got off track. The board drastically cut back on its plan to spend $75 million on Youth Justice Reimagined. Residents in affluent areas of the county that would have been home to the new secure facilities pushed back. In the meantime, the state nearly forced the county to shut down its existing juvenile facilities over safety concerns.
Will things get moving again in 2022? There is a vibrant youth justice advocacy community that we certainly expect will be pushing hard for that as the mayoral race heats up in Los Angeles.
The Child Tax Credit and Maltreatment Investigations
We haven’t even gotten the 2020 federal report on child maltreatment statistics, in which the fatality number will be a matter of much interest. Youth Services Insider is most interested, though, in what the 2021 report will have to say about investigations of maltreatment.
Why? Because Congress and both the Trump and Biden administrations signed off on all kinds of supports to keep the lives of low-income Americans stable during the pandemic, including major expansion of food stamps, an eviction moratorium and stimulus checks. And from July of through December of 2021, anyone with a child was eligible for hundreds of dollars each month (per child) through the enhanced Child Tax Credit. It is estimated by some that the credit alone lifted millions of children out of poverty.
It is almost a certainty that we will see a lower amount of screened-in referrals from child protection hotlines during fiscal year 2020, when mandated reporters from schools and child care did not have eyes on children like they normally do. But if that trend continues in the 2021 numbers, or even declines, it could be an indication of the fact that massive fiscal supports to low-income people had a suppressive effect on neglect claims.
A phrase you often hear in discussions about rethinking child welfare is that systems too often confuse poverty with neglect. If that is truly the case, then it would stand to reason that if less family and child poverty was “occurring” in 2021, we’ll see less cases. Hopefully there are multiple researchers doing more stringent assessments of the impact of the tax credit and other pandemic-related supports.
Brackeen v. Haaland
In 2018, in a case now known as Brackeen v. Haaland, a U.S. district court declared the Indian Child Welfare Act to be unconstitutional. The law has been on the books since 1978, passed to protect tribes and Native American families from erasure at the hands of child protection agencies that often placed their children with white parents or in boarding schools.
Last year, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals didn’t exactly uphold that ruling; but it didn’t exactly reject it either, leaving the law in flux. And both sides have filed briefs imploring the U.S. Supreme Court to take this case and remove the uncertainty of the lower court’s decision.
The court could decide as soon as this Friday if it wishes to grant cert in this case, and Youth Services Insider expects that it will. And sometime this year, we will find out if the decades-old protections for tribes and families are curtailed or thrown out entirely.
The provision at greatest risk of being stricken by the high court is also the one that comes into play most frequently in court: the requirement that “active efforts” be made in preventing the removal of children into foster care and to reunify them with birth parents if foster care is deemed necessary. In all other child welfare cases, the federal standard is a lower “reasonable efforts” requirement.
The Future of Foster Care Data
One of the last things the Obama child welfare team did on its way out was finalize plans for new child welfare data collection. Among the key subjects that we would finally see new numbers on: adoption disruptions after foster care, educational stability and progress for foster youth, sexual orientation and gender of children and parents involved in the system, and the application of the Indian Child Welfare Act.
But team Trump threw the brakes on that plan quickly, and then introduced its own stripped-down plan that eliminated hundreds of new elements from the Obama rule. Several organizations, including Lambda Legal and the Yurok Tribe, took the administration to court over the rules. And the case remains in court; the Biden administration has not taken any steps to settle or refuse to continue as a defendant.
Youth Services Insider’s guess is that the administration is waiting to see if the judge issues a judgment in favor of the plaintiffs, and just restores the Obama final rule. This presumably would mean that states would have to begin data collection pretty quickly, without the need for another round of preparation years that would mean waiting until 2026 for new information.
If the Trump rule holds, we wonder if the Biden team will let it take effect, to get some new data coming in quickly, and then issue a new rule adding back the other Obama elements.
When the coronavirus pandemic began its initial spread across America in March of 2020, a modicum of panic in child welfare and juvenile justice was understandable at a time when the danger of the disease was in question, and the world lacked preventative vaccines or treatments. Most court matters were delayed; reunification services and probation work went virtual; family visits were canceled or relegated to phone calls; and foster parents became in-home teachers.
Nearly two years later, it is increasingly obvious that both systems will have to learn to operate indefinitely with this virus as a factor. That may entail regular rapid testing strategies, vaccine mandates, the continued use of virtual services and court options, even if only as a backup. But it can no longer be about holding out for the end of coronavirus.