Making recommendations on what actions Congress should take is a challenge because we don’t know how the system will be challenged. Much of child welfare is dependent on relatives for care, whether in formal foster care, kinship care, informal kinship care, and beyond child welfare, child care. Many, but not all, will be older grandparents, so it is hard to determine the impact if the number of foster care or kinship care providers decreases. More generally, many family foster care providers may be stressed about ongoing outside contact. There is also the challenge of visits and reunification plans. In addition, child welfare, like a lot of care systems, including behavioral health, will be dealing with the best ways to assist residents in various forms of residential care.
Another reality is that two of the largest sources of mandatory reporters (educators and health professionals) may be disconnected from children as schools close, and there are likely fewer regular health care checkups. In addition, there will be increased stresses on families from every angle, including financial, human services such as nutrition, pressure on housing needs, isolation from society, and reduced respite for all families.
In that respect, this is much more severe than the great recession of 2008-09. The challenge then was the loss of jobs and the accompanying budget cuts and strains caused by the recession.
It is difficult to assess the impact of this situation on child welfare based on that 2008-09 recession. The child maltreatment report showed a decrease in maltreatment rates and numbers going from 763,000 to 702,000 between 2008 and 2009. At the same time, foster care numbers based on AFCARS showed a drop of 40,000 children in foster care in FY 2009 compared to FY 2008, going from 463,000 children to 423,000 children in care. It was the single biggest year to year drop in foster care numbers for twenty years, and it has never increased or decreased by as much. FY 2009 almost perfectly aligns with the height of the recession, October 1, 2008, through September 30, 2009. Did these numbers reflect better care and practice, or were severe budget cuts resulting in less care and support?
This crisis is going to require unique responses that will respond to different unheard-of challenges. At the very least, it will require vigilance in policy decisions and practice.