The three most significant legislative actions in terms of this nation’s history of child welfare policy have one thing in common: they were all followed by three of the worst recessions in the past half-century.

The Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act (PL 96-272), passed on June 17, 1980. It created Title IV-E of the Social Security Act, separating foster care funding from the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program and created, at the same time, adoption assistance. Congress also dictated several new oversight requirements, including case planning and requiring states to make reasonable efforts to keep families together. The creation of adoption assistance and some limited ability allowing states to divert some foster care funding to the flexible Title IV-B were envisioned as strategies to prevent foster care placements. Formally the country entered a “mild” recession in 1980 when unemployment reached 7.5 percent by mid-year, but a much more severe recession began to take root at the end of 1980 through 1982. By the end of 1982, unemployment nationally reached 10.8 percent, with some of the industrial mid-west states such as Michigan reaching a high of 14.5 percent.

Fast forward to September 17, 2008, and Congress passes the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act (PL 110-135). The act bundled several proposals that had been developed over several years. They were combined together that year as part of a regular reauthorization of the adoption incentives program. The significant changes to Title IV-E included phasing out and eliminating the AFDC link to the adoption assistance program, giving states the option to extend federal funding to subsidized kinship care placements, the option to extend foster care to age 21, the option for tribal governments and consortia to run their own Title IV-E programs, a number of new requirements for states around education rights and protections for children in foster care, health care monitoring, and siblings protections. The enactment of that law came literally within days of a stock market crash on September 29, 2008, that froze up businesses and governments in such a way that the bill likely would not have passed a few weeks later if the House and Senate negotiators had not reached a deal when they did.

Now fast forward to February 2018, and as part of a major budget agreement, Congress enacts the Family First Prevention Services Act. The law allows the expansion of in-home, substance use treatment and mental health services as well as new limitations on residential care. The bulk of its provisions began on October 1, 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic is still having its impact, and it is unclear how severe the current recession will be, but already the country is, at least temporarily, facing unemployment figures that exceed what took place in 1982 or 2009, at least for part of this year.

Whether related to the recession or not, foster care numbers decreased from the 1980 level when that law was enacted. According to the 1994 House Ways and Means Greenbook, 1980 foster care numbers stood at 302,000 (with 100,000 covered by federal funding) in 1980 but declined to 274,000 in 1981 and 262,000 in 1982. By 1984 those numbers would start to increase with analysts suggesting it was the impact of the increased use of crack-cocaine in many big cities.

In 2008, the foster care numbers stood at approximately 463,000, and the following fiscal year 2009, which covered October 1, 2008, through September 30, 2009, decreased to 423,000. A drop of 40,000 children in care, the single biggest year-to-year decrease in AFCARS data history. That year also saw the biggest decrease in entries into care, dropping by 21,000 in one year’s time. Foster care numbers would continue to decline much more gradually until 2013, with analysts tying much of the new increases to the opioid epidemic.

Today, the coronavirus represents a different circumstance. There is a recession of undetermined length and severity, but you also have factors present today that did not exist in the early 1980s or late 2000s. Children are not in school, which means children are not in direct contact with the number one category of mandatory child abuse and neglect reporters—school teachers. In addition, families are isolated from each other and society in general. In the latest child maltreatment report based on 2018 data, 146,000 substantiated child abuse victims entered foster care for at least some period. An additional 60,000 “non-victims” (likely siblings) also entered foster care. Anecdotally there are reports across the country that child abuse reports are down significantly. How all of these factors play out and what it means for some of the most vulnerable families and children in America is one more uncertainty of this pandemic.