We are finally starting to see what impact a nationwide quarantine will have on the foster care system. DCF handled 18,894 intakes in April, which was the lowest number in at least a decade. You could call that 40% lower than last year, or you could say that it’s 26% lower than expected, given that the numbers have been on a downward trend anyway. Either way, as you can see in the full dashboard, we’re beyond hurricane numbers, which typically give a month of lower intakes and then a return to normal. We are instead moving into something unprecedented: what happens if the foster care system doesn’t get new kids?
Ins and outs
For context to the numbers below, I want to give an analogy. The foster care system is a pipeline. Kids come in through the front and leave out the back. Governmental policies, more than anything else, determine the rates at which kids enter and exit. Over the decades, various federal and state administrations have prioritized removals, adoptions, reunifications, in-home services, licensed placements, family placements, and a slew of other policies that had the primary effect of changing the rate of kids coming in and the rate of kids going out.
The middle of the system is like a firehose. If you push water into the hose faster than it can exit, then your hose will expand and eventually burst. If you don’t keep enough pressure in the hose, the water will sit and become stagnant. Pressure comes from pumps and valves and other mechanisms that keep things moving.
Putting that water hose in child welfare terms, the policies around permanency timelines, judicial review, and funding limitations are designed to keep kids moving through the system. The policies around placements are meant to provide enough flexibility that the system can expand and contract without suffering serious shocks.
The most significant expansions and contractions in systems have largely been a result of intentional governmental policies. Since the acculturation of Americans to mandatory child abuse reporting from the 1960s through the 1990s, there has been a steady stream of reports, but not always a consistent level of governmental response. People have built careers, contracts, and budgets around handling a certain number of cases or children per month. Foster parents make work decisions based on the board rate, and programs hire staff on the reasonable assumption that every child who leaves will be replaced by a new one.
A lot of discussions have centered on the question of whether kids will be left in unsafe homes due to the pandemic. I think that’s a valid question. We don’t know whether those 26% of calls would have resulted in removals or not. We don’t even have a good baseline, because we don’t know how the pandemic will change the rates and nature of child maltreatment. We have reason to believe financial insecurity raises the risk of abuse and neglect, but we also know that income inequality and racial disparities impact the numbers by targeting certain families for scrutiny. We have no idea what happens when everyone goes through social and financial trauma at the same time.
The pandemic also raises a second question of what happens to the system if people don’t call cases in and that steady stream of kids suddenly dries up. Will investigators start removing children on facts that would have otherwise gotten a pass? Will the system hold onto existing children longer to minimize the time that beds stay empty? Will programs close or change their focus to take in different kids? Will foster parents not take one child because they had built their home’s budget around two or they now have their own families to look after? Will children who had been bounced around before suddenly find stability when there is no other child waiting to take their place.?
We have never in modern history had a prolonged supply-side shock to the child welfare system. How it responds will tell us a lot about how it works.
Here are the numbers for Florida.
Intakes were down 26.5% from the expected rate. You can see that the March numbers have been adjusted up to -4% because they don’t look so low compared to the new trend. The numbers were down in every region of the state.
Verifications were normal, maybe even a little up (+1%). They’ve been going down for a very long time. That dip in December 2019 predates any serious talk of pandemics. I have no explanation for that. Verifications follow this pattern everywhere except the Southern and Northeast Regions, where they were flat.
Removals were down 19%. There’s usually a two-month lag between an intake and a removal. These investigations would have happened during the pandemic, but the calls likely came in right before it. We are still seeing hurricane levels here. Removals for physical abuse (-30%), inadequate housing (-11%), inadequate supervision (-18%), and sexual abuse (-14%) were all significantly down. Drug abuse (-4%) and domestic violence (-6%) removals were low but normal.
Removals per 100 intakes were normal (-2%). Again, these removals are based on intakes that came in right before the lockdown. We will be watching this number over the next months to see what happens.
Exits were low-normal (-5%). This will also be interesting to watch.
Reunifications were normal (-1%). But, you can see that drop-off getting ready to happen. If that line jumps back up next month, we’re continuing our normal downward trend. If it falls off even more, we have something new happening.
Guardianships may be back to normal (-0.4%). You can see that guardianships took a huge hit in March, but hopped back up in April. Again, that is either part of the old decrease or it’s a new normal. Only time will tell.
Adoptions recovered (+3%). I suspected that judges would handle the adoptions that got postponed, and that seems to be what happened. Those cases were already ready, so it’s easy to just set the one final hearing. We do not yet know how the pandemic will affect the permanency timelines of cases that come in now.
The full dashboard is available here. You can check the numbers for your region, CBC, circuit, or county. You can also see the breakdown of how removals are different for different maltreatment types. I hope you’re doing well in these strange times.