Last week, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a 460-page report highlighting a range of urgent needs to address during this pandemic. The report, Urgent Actions Needed to Better Ensure an Effective Federal Response, summarized:  The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in catastrophic loss of life and substantial damage to the global economy, stability, and security. According to federal data, the U.S. had an average of 116,000 new COVID-19 cases per day from November 1 through November 12, 2020. …

Further, while the economy has improved since July 2020, many people remain unemployed, including both those temporarily laid off and those who have permanently lost their job. Also, more households have become seriously delinquent on mortgage payments during the pandemic. In addition, GAO’s review of academic studies suggests the pandemic will likely remain a significant obstacle to more robust economic activity.

As of late last week, more than 275,000 people have died from the COVID-19 virus, likely an undercount. That total exceeds World War I, Korea, Vietnam, the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (a total of approximately 218,000 casualties). At a rate of more than 3,000 deaths a day, a number exceeded for the first time on Wednesday, December 2 (Johns Hopkins University), it is possible that pandemic deaths at the one-year mark could exceed the 405,000 causalities from World War II.

The GAO report reviews approximately 40 areas, including child welfare, and includes some of the cabinet department responses to GAO recommendations. The assessment by the GAO included a number of child welfare concerns based on interviews conducted with staff. Many reflect concerns raised by CWLA and its members. According to the GAO:

Declines in child abuse reports: Five of the eight national organizations raised concerns about declines in child abuse reports, particularly as some noted that families may be experiencing increased stress and hardship during this time and children have less frequent contact with mandatory reporters, such as school and medical personnel. Though nationwide data are unavailable, one national research organization reported that in March 2020, some states noted a decline of between 20 and 70 percent in the number of child abuse reports. Representatives from three national organizations said that while reporting declines are concerning, little is known about the extent to which abuse is occurring.

Court delays in child welfare decisions: Five national organizations discussed how court closures and limited schedules, particularly at the beginning of the pandemic, delayed decisions in child welfare cases. They said delays could affect when children are able to see their biological parents and how soon children can return home or be adopted.

Financial and housing instability for youth aging out of foster care: Four national organizations described how the pandemic has exacerbated challenges for youth aging out of foster care. For example, one representative said the pandemic’s economic impact has left youth out of work. Another representative said the closure of college campuses may result in youth losing their housing. One representative noted that aging out of foster care is already difficult for youth, even without a pandemic, because they may lose the supports, they received in foster care and may not have a network to rely on.

Health risks and limitations with in-person visits for children in foster care: Representatives from five national organizations discussed challenges state child welfare agencies faced early in the pandemic, either accessing personal protective equipment or technology needed to protect the health of caseworkers, families, and children while continuing visits to ensure children’s safety and well-being. For example, representatives from two national organizations said agencies struggled to get caseworkers designated as essential personnel so they would have priority access to masks, hand sanitizer, and other personal protective equipment. Representatives from three national organizations said agencies also faced challenges obtaining laptops, cellphones, internet, and other technology for child welfare caseworkers, families, and children for caseworkers to visit children in foster homes and children to see their biological families virtually. We plan to examine these and other ongoing challenges for state child welfare agencies as part of our continuing work.

Overall budgetary constraints for child welfare agencies: Representatives from five national organizations raised concerns about budgetary constraints for child welfare agencies as a result of the pandemic’s economic impact on state budgets. For example, one representative explained that decreases in state revenues during the pandemic contributed to some states’ decisions to implement spending cuts, including for child welfare services. Another representative said limited funding has affected agencies’ ability to assist service providers as well as families caring for children in foster care, including some who may be in financial distress or have additional needs due to school closures.

The GAO report notes that the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) released supplemental grant awards from the $45 million provided under the CARES Act to all Title IVB grantees on April 23, 2020. The amounts provided to states ranged from $15,686 to $4,690,717, with an average of $847,907 per state. Examples of how the limited funds were used included purchasing personal protective equipment for child welfare caseworkers and technology for families and children; extending support services to youth who have aged out of foster care (e.g., up to age 23); providing additional funds to support foster care families.

CWLA is supporting a number of increases in a COVID relief package, including an increase in the FMAP/IV-E match, more assistance for youth in transition, support to address the education needs of the K-12 population, support for the essential work of the child welfare workforce, the courts, and many other areas under challenge.