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What COVID did and didn’t do to Florida’s Foster Care System

I haven’t written about the COVID numbers for a few months because there hasn’t been much new to say. We’ve needed more time to tell if the initial shocks in April were a blip or a new normal. We now have 6 months of data to compare and the answer looks pretty clear to me.

It also looks pretty clear to DCF, which tweeted out this thank you to teachers for calling in more cases on kids.

That’s a very odd thing to thank people for, along the lines of “thanks for calling 911!” or “thanks for reporting so many forest fires that we investigated and discovered were not actually a fire at all!”

Before we get to the numbers, a quick reminder that foster care numbers are time-series data, along the lines of the stock market, ice cream sales, and average temperatures. Here are three important components of time-series data that this post will reference:

  1. The seasonal ups and downs are the changes that happen, on average, every year at around the same time. For example, an ice cream stand may do 250% more business every summer, and the firecracker industry may have two or three spikes per year. When you’re interested in what’s normal, the seasonality is interesting. When you want to measure what is abnormal (like a pandemic) you remove the seasonal variation from the data to get a smoother graph and a clearer picture.
  2. The long-term trend is also measured and removed. If ice cream sales have been going up 10% a year for the last decade, that is interesting but should be factored out when determining whether you had a good month. In the child welfare graphs below I’ve used a 12-month median to determine the trend line. A smaller window would result in a jumpier line, and a bigger window would give a smoother line.
  3. If you take out the seasonal and long-term trends, you’re left with the remainder amount. This shows how far the value is outside of what you expected. If you’re asking whether something was an anomaly, you could look here to see if anything stands out. The graphs below look for spikes that are four or more standard deviations from the mean. That means they are very, very unlikely to be normal variations.

So now, with six months under our belts (masks?), let’s see what the numbers show. The full dashboard down to the county level is here. This post is a summary of the statewide numbers.

First, something that the pandemic impacted a lot: institutional abuse reports

If you believe in a direct correlation between abuse calls and safety, then the lockdown orders undeniably made one set of kids safer: the 500-600 kids per month who are allegedly abused by their schools, daycares, summer camps, churches, and other institutional caretakers. This isn’t a situation where the numbers dipped because of a lack of “eyes on the child.” The “eyes” are the abusers in these cases.

Below you can see that the number of institutional abuse reports was down 58% in April 2020, 44% in May, and then started to rebound. The trend line (in blue) had been pretty steady since 2014, and may have even started dipping a little in 2019. The pandemic significantly changed the trend — and I suspect the number won’t completely rebound because fewer people are sending their kids to institutional care settings.

The reduction in calls on children in their homes wasn’t nearly as drastic

Looking at the institutional abuse calls puts the in-home abuse calls into better perspective. Yes, they went down in April (24%) and May (13%) but then they headed back up. The trend line wasn’t much bothered by these dips. I’d call this a V-shaped recovery. The next six months will tell whether that slight increase in September is just a rebound or a new trend. The pandemic dip was a blip.

A trend that wasn’t affected at all: removals

The number of removals per month has trended down since 2016. During that period the largest single month decrease was September 2017 during Hurricane Irma (down 19%). April 2020 came close (down 15%). By summer, though, removals were back above the trend line. And most importantly, the trend line itself didn’t budge.

This is the time to mention that the child welfare system is very bad at its core job of identifying and getting help for kids who need it. The system relies on citizen reporters, as opposed to, say, random home checks of everyone with kids or, say, having such amazing services that people voluntarily call for help instead of having to be sued by the state to accept it (imagine!). These reporters notoriously over-report cases in some communities and under-report them in others. Even the cases that are reported typically don’t result in a removal (only 5-6 removals per 100 alleged victims), and somewhere between 40-50% of investigations result in no indicators of child maltreatment all. Investigating those cases is a waste of time, results in needless trauma to the family, and takes away resources and attention from kids who really need help.

So how did calls to the abuse hotline go down but removals not budge? One possible explanation is that the calls that got skipped would have largely fallen into the “no findings” group. Another explanation could be that DCF weakened its risk thresholds and removed kids who normally they would not have. Yet a third possibility is that the lower investigation caseloads resulted in deeper investigations and kids being removed who would have been overlooked before.

It could be some combination of all three.

There’s some evidence that DCF’s risk threshold changed. For example, removals in April 2020 decreased most for kids aged 5-12 and 13-17. The same level of decrease didn’t happen for newborns or toddlers. These removals were based on calls made in February and March, before the pandemic , so you can’t blame the callers on this one. The investigators’ decision making seems to have change. Teens had a very sharp rebound in June that wasn’t seen in the other age groups.

Below you can also see that neglect-type maltreatments (e.g., inadequate supervision and housing) saw greater decreases — relative to their normal ups and downs — than abuse-type harms. Some maltreatment removals rebounded over the summer (e.g., sexual and physical abuse), and some saw very little change over time at all (e.g., drug abuse and domestic violence). Not shown here, domestic violence removals went up a little in the Northeast Region and stayed flat everywhere else.

I should note that removals typically rise 7% in October and then are down through the end of the year. If the predicted wave of removals doesn’t appear by October, I don’t think it’s ever happening.

Discharges are more complicated

The discharge rate has been very flat for a while. It arguably started trending downward in mid-2019 and continued trending downward through the pandemic. You can see some green spikes that look like corrections but the general trend is downward.

Breaking that into exit types, reunifications trended downward and hit their lowest point in May when most courts were shut down (down 20%). They were then down all summer. There appears to be a U-shaped rebound, but we won’t know for sure until we get more information.

Guardianships took a huge hit in March when courts first closed down, but have more or less corrected. Guardianships have been on a downward slide for a while (which I think is very bad policy), and the pandemic didn’t do anything to change that.

Adoptions took a big enough dive to affect their trend line, going from about 321 per month to 243 per month. We need more time to see whether the correction is U-shaped or whether we get a new normal L.

Well-being measures mostly improved

If you thought the pandemic would lead to worse well-being measures in foster care, you would have been wrong. Most of the measures have actually improved, with the slight exception of the number of kids getting timely dental care.

And this next one is my favorite, so I’m showing the graph. The statewide number of placement moves per 1,000 bed days in out-of-home care was the lowest it’s ever been (3.53). Black children had the most stability they’ve seen in the last 13 years (3.9) and the pandemic erased an 8-year trend of increasing instability for Black children in care. It’s not surprising that making caregivers bear more costs from placement instability (i.e., risks to their own health) and reducing placement departments’ willingness to accept placement change requests had a net positive effect for kids.

So that’s it. The pandemic didn’t crash the system. It made some of it better. One more month like this and I think we can call it stabilized.

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