A new GAO report: CHILD WELFARE Pandemic Posed Challenges, but also Created Opportunities for Agencies to Enhance Future Operations, includes the result of a survey of state and local child welfare agencies on the challenges of the past year. The challenges included child protective services, the legal system, providing support for families and workers in foster care and families at the community level.

Specifically, the GAO examined:

  • Challenges child welfare agencies reported.
  • Actions agencies reported taking to respond.
  • Practices agencies reported they may continue based on what they learned during the pandemic.

GAO investigators interviewed officials in California, Florida, Illinois, New York, Texas, and ten local child welfare agencies. They also interviewed HHS officials.

There appeared to be differences between the states regarding child abuse and neglect reports, a subject that received a great deal of attention over the past year. Some states indicated, “they observed more severe cases of abuse during this time, such as increases in the number of cases involving burns and bone fractures and in the number of investigations requiring removal of the child from the home.” But the report also says that “Officials in two state and three local agencies said they have not observed more severe cases.” The report goes on “officials we interviewed in many state and local child welfare agencies noted that their reporting trends had begun to return to pre-pandemic levels in summer and fall 2020.”

Many of the initial challenges are familiar to people within the child welfare community. Officials in nearly all of the state and local child welfare agencies experienced problems accessing technology, and personal protective equipment (PPE) needed to protect the health of staff and families. Officials discussed difficulties finding placements for children because of concerns from foster families about caring for newly placed children, particularly when these children may have been exposed to the virus. Other challenges included concerns about placing children in foster care with older caregivers because these caregivers may be more vulnerable to COVID-19.

Another area of concern was about delays in child welfare hearings because many courts closed or operated in a limited capacity. Agencies expressed concerns about ongoing disruptions to health and other services for children and families. One example, special education and mental health service providers in their area stopped delivering services because they did not want to risk their health. Another often-cited challenge, initially accessing technology for staff and families.

One approach by some agencies involved increased outreach and support to families. Officials in 35 of the 53 states surveyed reported that, in response to the pandemic, most of the agencies in their state had specifically reached out to support families who had previously been in contact with the agency (e.g., for an investigation). Other examples included providing direct supports to foster families and providers as well as to older youth in foster care.

Several funding streams were temporarily increased to help states. This included an increased match in federal Title IV-E funding (FMAP), increased funding under Title IV-B part 1 and Title IV-B part 2, and increased funding through the Chaffee program.

The report also has a useful analysis of the use of virtual tools. States used virtual services in a number of areas and may continue its use:

  • Case Planning (46 states with 22 saying they will continue).
  • Family Time (46/26 continuing).
  • Caseworker Visits (39/19 continuing).
  • Court Hearing (39/13 continuing).
  • Telehealth Visits ( 36/9 continuing).