The coronavirus pandemic, and the measures imposed to contain it, have affected almost every aspect of child welfare operations in the District of Columbia and around the country. Maintaining normal child welfare operations during this crisis was not an option. CFSA appears to have continued to meet its core responsibilities of investigations, in-home services, and providing a safe haven for children in foster care. However, some questions and concerns remain and some areas require special attention as the city moves toward normalcy.
Child welfare operations can be divided into the major categories of child protective services (or investigations), in home services, and foster care and adoption services and are discussed in that order below.
CHILD PROTECTIVE SERVICES
Investigating allegations: While other social worker visits have become virtual, CFSA has continued to send its CPS workers into the field to investigate allegations of child abuse and neglect. But there have been many fewer allegations to investigate. CFSA reports that between March 16 and April 18 of 2020, it received 897 hotline calls, compared to 2,356 hotline calls between those dates in 2020. (Child Welfare Monitor has requested updated figures from CFSA but not yet received them.) This drastic decline is not surprising because children have not been going to school or medical checkups or seeing family friends and relatives who might notice signs of maltreatment. As a result of reduced reports and resulting investigations, the number of children entering foster care has also declined. As stated in an earlier post, the agency might have done a better job at encouraging teachers to report children who were not in contact with their schools before school let out for the summer. At this point, with many summer camps canceled or scheduled to operate at reduced capacity, CFSA should be doing more to encourage awareness of child maltreatment and reporting among members of the general public and workers who see children regularly in the community.
Worker Safety: Continuing to conduct in-person investigations for child abuse or neglect means that workers are potentially being exposed to Covid-19. A recent article in City Paper painted a distressing picture of an agency that failed to provide its staff with the personal protective equipment (PPE) they needed to prevent infection. And it indeed appears that CFSA, like other agencies, was slow to obtain such protective gear. However, it is not clear that it would have been possible to obtain it any faster in light of the shortages at the beginning of the pandemic. In any case, CFSA workers have paid a high price for their important work on the front lines. As of June 21, a total of 48 CFSA employees had returned to work after recovering from Covid-19, six were currently in quarantine, and one had died. According to CFSA’s Communications Director Kera Tyler, by now all workers have provided with protective equipment and can obtain more as needed.
CPS Workforce and Caseloads: CFSA has allowed workers who are at high-risk of complications from Covid-19 to work from home, meaning that they are not able to carry out in-person investigations. City Paper reported some alarming data about declines in the CPS workforce due to at-risk workers staying home and agency vacancies, but these number were apparently inaccurate. There were 131 CPS workers in the field before the pandemic and 112 as of June 15, according to Tyler. Of the 19 employees currently staying home due to a COVID health concern, all were teleworking. In contrast to the data reported by City Paper, the current number of CPS vacancies was six on June 15. These vacancies are exempted from the hiring freeze, and the agency was actively working to fill those positions, according to Tyler. With the large decrease in hotline calls, it is not likely that CPS caseloads have risen during this time; on the contrary they have likely fallen.
Extrajudicial Placements/Hidden foster care: There has been growing concern in the District and around the country about children being placed with relatives outside of the foster care system without court involvement or agency support. This extrajudicial placement of children is often called “hidden foster care.” These concerns have escalated around the country in light of Covid-19. In the District, CFSA Director Brenda Donald stated at a budget hearing and community forum that parents who are incapacitated by COVID-19 would not be considered neglectful and that their children would be placed with kin without court involvement. This sounds like a humane policy but is actually inconsistent with DC law regarding parental illness or incapacity. Under current law, being unable to care for a child due to physical or mental incapacity is defined as neglect, regardless of the parent’s intent, as is explained in a document provided to Child Welfare Monitor by Marla Spindel of the DC Kincare Alliance. This finding of neglect by the court is required for the child to be removed and placed in foster care. By not declaring their children neglected, CFSA is treating parents affected by Covid-19 differently from parents with other incapacitating conditions. Moreover, such extrajudicial placements raise a number of concerns, including the lack of parental consent, the failure to establish a timeline, plan or services to return the child to the parents, and the child’s loss of certain rights, like the right to stay in the same school. We have no idea of the how many children have been affected by such placements due to parental incapacity from Covid-19 as CFSA has not answered our question and there is no requirement to collect this information..
IN HOME SERVICES
Over the past several years, the balance has shifted so that the majority of children served by CFSA are living at home with their families, not in foster care. In-home social workers visit families once, twice or four times a month depending on the intensity of their needs. During the pandemic, these social worker visits have shifted from face-to-face to virtual. Clearly there is a tradeoff between worker safety and child safety in this context. It is more difficult for workers to spot concerning signs of child abuse or neglect through a computer screen, especially when internet service is poor. In-home workers are an important source of CPS reports; CFSA data reported to the CRP last year indicated removals from in-home were 40% of all removals in the nine-month period ending June 30, 2019. We do not yet know whether removals from in-home cases have increased during the pandemic.
Impact of virus and quarantine: Illness among children and foster parents has been widespread: As of June 10, 17 children in the custody of CFSA had tested positive for Covid-19. CFSA established a respite center for children who test positive for coronavirus, and a total of three children have utilized the respite facility since its inception. The remaining children remained (or been placed in) in their foster homes or group homes. There was some fear that placements might be disrupted by foster parents concerned that their foster children were failing to observe the curfew but as of June 15 CFSA reported no such disruptions. However, Judith Sandalow of the Children’s Law Center reported in her budget testimony that “placements are disrupting due to disagreements between foster parents and older youth regarding how too balance social distancing recommendations with work obligations and birth family connections.”
Visitation with parents: Parent-child visitation is a crucial part of any plan to reunite birth parents with their children. Most of these visits have gone virtual around the country in the wake of pandemic concerns. Birth parents and their advocates around the country have expressed concern that virtual visits would not be as effective as in-person visits in building parent-child bonds (especially for younger children) and that reunifications might be delayed as a result. In the District of Columbia, all visits supervised by CFSA social workers continued to be virtual as of June 15, according to Kera Tyler of CFSA. Unsupervised visits and visits that are supervised by designees, such as kinship resource parents, were being managed on a case-by-case basis. Many of these visits were taking place virtually, but some have continued in person.
Social Worker visitation: Social worker visitation to foster families, like visitation to families with in-home cases, has been virtual since the onset of the pandemic restrictions. Other jurisdictions have adopted the same policy, in accord with federal guidance waiving the requirement that these visits be in person for the duration of the emergency. As in the case of visits to families with in-home cases, it is certainly more difficult to assess the situation in a foster home online, especially if a parent is using a phone with a poor internet connection. Subtle or not so subtle cues can be missed and it can be difficult to talk privately to the children.
Reunifications and Adoptions: At the onset of the emergency, the Family Court suspended almost all operations except initial hearings for children coming into the system. Since that time, the court has slowly begun to resume operations online, as Children’s Law Center’s GAL Program Director, Jennifer Morris, reported to Child Welfare Monitor. Permanency hearings have continued to be replaced mostly by written reports and orders. We do not know whether these reduced court operations have resulted in any delays for reunifications or adoptions. Most parents with in-home or out-of-home cases require one or more services such as mental health and drug treatment to achieve reunification or case closure. These services also have been affected by the pandemic; they have presumably been either suspended or moved online with unknown impacts on accessibility and effectiveness. Brenda Donald has stated that reunifications and adoptions have continued since the coronavirus emergency but has not provided a comparison of the numbers during equivalent periods before the pandemic.
In conclusion, it appears that CFSA has been able to continue with its core operations without extreme disruption–certainly a commendable result given the widespread impact of the Covid-19 emergency. Nevertheless, the pandemic has clearly affected the agency’s capacity to identify and protect abused and neglected children and to work with their families toward reunification or case closure. In addition, there is some reason for concern that children left without a caregiver when their parents contracted Covid-19 may have been placed extrajudicially with relatives in a way that deprives them, their parents and their caregivers of significant rights and benefits. The repercussions of all of these changes are yet to be known, as is CFSA’s plan for increasing in-person visits as the city opens further.