Testimony before the DC Council, CFSA Oversight Hearing, February 25, 2021

Good afternoon! Thank you for the opportunity to testify before the Committee today.  My name is Marie Cohen, and I write the blog, Child Welfare Monitor DC, as well as Child Welfare Monitor, which focuses on national issues. I am also a former social worker in CFSA’s foster care system.  My testimony is based on the data that CFSA has been sharing on its new data dashboard, as well as their performance oversight responses and published reports. The most recent dashboard data were uploaded last week and pertain to the quarter that ended in December. I’ll also be making some remarks about CFSA’s efforts around in-home services and prevention, leaving my friends at FAPAC and Children’s Law Center to talk about foster care.. 

My testimony makes a  few major points. 

  • There was a drastic drop in calls to the CFSA hotline starting last March following the closure of schools and the imposition of a stay-at-home order by the Mayor. Total calls were 25 percent lower in March through December 2020 than in the same months of 2019. The number of calls gradually returned to almost normal by December, after CFSA provided training to schools in how to detect abuse and neglect in a virtual environment. The number of investigations, and the number of findings of abuse or neglect, followed the pattern of hotline calls. 
  • CFSA does not currently have valid data on the number of in-home cases opened each month so we cannot tell if that has been affected by the pandemic. But point-in-time data shows the number of children being served in their homes dropped about six percent from 1,333 on December 31, 2019 to 1,250 on that date in 2020. 
  • Foster care entries displayed a surprising trend during 2020. There was a big decrease in foster care entries before the pandemic, and since then quarterly entries have bounced up and down. 
  • Foster care exits declined by 24 percent between March and December, perhaps reflecting court and service delays due to the pandemic, but the gap seems to be closing, with exits actually eclipsing the previous year in October and December.
  • The total number of children in foster care declined from 771 on December 31, 2019 to 662 on December 31, 2020, for a decrease of 14 percent. The fiscal year decrease of 13 percent is larger than for any other year since FY 2014. We do not know the extent to which this accelerated decline in the foster care rolls reflects policy and practice changes, demographic changes in the city, or other factors, but it does not appear to reflect the loss of hotline reports due to COVID-19. Such a big decrease in foster care caseloads raises concerns about whether children’s safety is being compromised.
  • The total number of children served in foster care and in their homes declined by nine percent between December 2019 and December 2020. This is a decrease of almost 10 percent in one year in the total number of children served by CFSA. 
  • About 65 percent of children served by CFSA are being served in their homes rather than in foster care, but we know too little about the services they and their parents are receiving. The oversight responses show a large dropoff between referral and receipt of services, and nothing about completion. Moreover, CFSA does not report on how many parents receive basic psychiatric, therapy, drug treatment and domestic violence services provided by DBH and other agencies. We know that quality and availability are both issues for these services. 
  • CFSA has invested in Family Success Centers as its strategy for the prevention of child abuse and neglect before they occur. These centers seem to be off to a good start and are offering a large menu of services geared at strengthening families. But these centers make no special effort to engage those who need them most, who are traditionally hardest to engage. 
  • Several policy recommendations are suggested by these findings. These include: training alternative reporters for child maltreatment; collecting and sharing data on children diverted to kinship care and their outcomes over time; reviewing CFSA policies and practices to make sure they are not compromising child safety; recognizing the critical role of DBH services for CFSA clients, including parents and those with in-home cases; adding a prevention program that is targeted to the children most at risk of being maltreated, and ensuring speedy implementation of the Children’s Ombudsperson Act.

My observations are discussed in more detail below.

Hotline: There was a drastic drop in hotline calls after pandemic closures, with calls gradually approaching normal levels by December 2020

Almost as soon as the pandemic took hold and stay-at-home orders were issued, child advocates around the country began to express fears that abuse and neglect would increase due to parental stress and economic hardship. Research has suggested that family violence spikes during natural and economic disasters. At the same time, school closures raised fear that child abuse and neglect would go undetected as children stayed home away from the eyes of teachers and others who might report suspicions of abuse or neglect. And indeed, in the District as around the country, calls to the child abuse hotline dropped drastically relative to last year, especially in April and May, just after the shutdown of school and the imposition of a stay-at-home order.  School closures were likely the main cause for this drop, as school and childcare personnel made 43 percent of the calls in FY 2019–and only 36 percent of calls in FY 2020.  But the summer, when teachers are not seeing students anyway and reports go down, looked more like a normal year.  It is as if summer started in April and did not end until August. There is usually an uptick in reports in September and especially October after children return to school and teachers get to know them. This occurred in FY 2020 but was smaller than in FY 2019. But reports began to approach their normal level in November and December. CFSA credits the guidance they developed (in the form of a webinar and a participant guide) to be used to train teachers teaching virtually about how to spot abuse and neglect in a virtual environment. In total, the number of hotline calls dropped from 15,456 between March and December 2019 to 11,579 in the same months in 2019–a difference of 25 percent.

Figure One

Some commentators around the country have wondered if the loss of some reports from teachers might be a good thing because some of these reports were trivial and should not have been made. If only the frivolous reports were being suppressed, the number of reports accepted for investigation would remain similar across the two years. This was not the case. The pattern of hotline calls accepted for investigation followed closely the pattern of all calls to the hotline.

Figure Two

The number of investigations that was substantiated followed a similar pattern to that of reports and accepted investigations. The total number of investigations that was substantiated decreased from 1,053 in March to December 2019 to 808 in March to December 2020, a decrease of 23.2 percent, similar to the percentage decrease in hotline calls. 

Figure Three

We do not know how many in-home cases were opened in 2020 but we do know that the in-home caseload declined significantly between CY 2019 and CY 2020.

When child maltreatment is substantiated, CFSA can place the child in foster care (opening an out-of-home case), open an in-home case, or not open a case at all and refer the family to a collaborative. One might expect fewer cases of both types to open during the pandemic due to the decline in hotline calls.  CFSA does not currently have valid data on in-home case openings, so we do not know the effects of pandemic on this indicator. (Data on in-home case openings posted earlier has been removed due to technical problems). Point-in-time data shows that the number of children served in their homes dropped about six percent from 1333 on December 31, 2019 to 1250 on that date in 2020. And the number of families served in their homes dropped about seven percent from 510 to 473. 

Table One: Number of Children and Families Served In-Home

December 31, 2019December 31, 2020
Children1,3331,250
Families510473

Foster care entries decreased before the start of the pandemic; not so much afterwards.

It is not surprising that hotline calls, investigations, substantiations and in-home case openings all declined in the wake of the pandemic and associated closures. The big surprise is that foster care entries did not display the same pattern. Entries into foster care started out low in January, dropped in February and actually rose in March, April and May of 2020 before dropping sharply in June and a bit more in September. The total number of children placed in foster care declined from 261 in March through December of 2019 to 181 in March through December of 2020.

Figure Four

Looking at quarterly data over time shows that the big decrease in foster care entries appears to have occurred before the onset of the pandemic. It took place during the last two quarters of FY 2019. Foster care entries bounced up and down for the last five quarters, actually increasing last spring when the pandemic began. The data suggest that there was a renewed push to “narrow the front door” of foster care starting in the third quarter of Fiscal Year 2019. And indeed, CFSA’s Communications Director stated that the fall in foster care entries reflected CFSA’s “continued commitment to keep children out of foster care by supporting families in their homes.” Could an increased use of kinship diversion have contributed to these numbers? We won’t know until CFSA starts reporting data on the use of this practice. 

Figure Five

It appears that there were some delays in the achievement of permanency for foster youths in the first few months after the pandemic, as evidenced by declining foster care exits, but the agency appeared to be closing the gap in the first quarter of FY 2021.

There has been widespread concern around the country that covid-19 would create delays in the achievement of permanency for foster youth. Family reunifications could be delayed by court closures, cancellation of in-person parent-child visits and increased difficulty facing parents needing to complete services in order to reunify with their children. Court delays could also hamper exits from foster care due to adoption and guardianship. And indeed fewer children did exit foster care every month from March to September, especially in May and June, than in the same months in 2019. However, the difference between the two years declined in July and August and almost disappeared by September, and the pattern reversed in October and December, so perhaps the agency and court were able to clear the backlog. The total number of children exiting foster care declined from 357 during the period from March through December 2019 to 272 in the same months of 2020. 

Figure Six

A large (14 percent) decline in the number of children in foster care occurred in 2020. 

The total number of children in foster care on the last day of Calendar Year 2019 was 798. It declined to 694 by December 30, 2020, for a decrease of 14 percent. This does not seem to be a consequence of the pandemic, as entries and exits decreased by a similar amount in March to December 2020 relative to 2019. The number of children in foster care on the last day of the fiscal year has declined every year since FY 2012. However, the percentage drop in the foster care rolls (13 percent) was greater than in any other year since FY 2014. Such an accelerated decline always raises questions about whether child safety is receiving adequate consideration.

Figure Seven

The total number of children served both in-home and in foster care declined from 2,104 on December 31, 2019 to 1,912 on December 31, 2020, a decrease of 9 percent.  Out of these 1912 children, 662 (34.6 percent) were being served in foster care and 1,250 (65.4 percent) were being served in their homes. It is important to note that this is a decrease of almost 10 percent in one year in the total number of children served by CFSA, rather than a shift in the percentage being served from foster care to in-home. The reason for this drop is not totally clear but may reflect pre-pandemic policy and practice changes for foster care and pandemic induced reporting declines for in-home services.

Table Two: Children Served in Foster Care and In-Home

DateFoster CareIn-HomeTotal (% Difference from Previous year)
December 31, 2019771 (36.6%)1333 (63.4%)2,104 (1.7%)
December 31, 2020662 (34.6%)1250 (65.4%)1,912 (9.1%)

We know too little about the services received by the parents, as well as children served in their homes.

I have talked a lot about numbers but not at all about the content and quality of services, and I’ll focus on in-home services here. CFSA’s oversight responses provide a list of services provided to families with an open investigation, in-home case, and out of home case combined, not separately for each group. The responses indicated that 910 families were referred to these various services but only 544 were served in FY 2020. We have no idea how many people completed these services, but it is probably a lot less. Moreover, CFSA did not report at all on how many parents received basic psychiatric, therapeutic and drug treatment services, or domestic violence services. CFSA depends on DBH for mental health and drug treatment services and nonprofits for domestic violence services. The DBH services are often of poor quality and all of these services are often in short supply with long waits. CLC discussed the unmet behavioral health needs of children in foster care; the same applies to children in in-home care and especially their parents, who need these services in order to reunify safely with their children.

The big worry is that if the services provided to parents are not effective, cases will be closed without parents having made the changes necessary to be able to keep their children safe. Therefore, we are likely to see these families in the system again, with more harm done to their children. However, there is encouraging news from the latest Quality Service Review (QSR) Report about the In-Home Administration’s improved performance  on providing supports and services to families. 

CFSA seems to have made a good start in implementing the Family Success Centers but needs to do more to engage the families that are most at-risk and hardest to engage.

The Family Success Centers appear to be off to a good start in offering a diverse menu of family strengthening services close at hand for parents in Wards 7 and 8. However, it is not likely that they are going to reach the families that need them most. Families at higher risk are traditionally difficult to engage and reach with services. If CFSA really wants to make a serious effort toward prevention, it will need to target families that are identified as at high risk of child maltreatment.

One example of such a program is Hello Baby, which was pioneered in Allegheny County Pennsylvania, home of Pittsburgh and the visionary child welfare leader Marc Cherna, who has since retired. Allegheny already had Family Success Centers, and they already know that they do not reach the families that need them most. Allegheny County decided to offer a universal support program to all parents of newborns.  The program has three tiers, with the least at-risk families being offered services such as a “warmline,” texting services, and website. The middle tier is connected with Allegheny’s equivalent of the Family Success Centers. And the most at-risk group receives a peer mentor and a benefits navigator or case manager who work together to ensure the family receives the services they need. To assign parents to tiers, Allegheny County uses a predictive algorithm based on a highly advanced “data warehouse” that integrates data across multiple county agencies.

Policy Suggestions

The information outlined above points to several recommendations for CFSA and the Council

  1. Although calls to the CFSA hotline seemed to approach normal levels in December, the total hotline calls between March and December dropped by 25 percent between 2019 and 2020 . Moreover, a nearly 10 percent drop in the total number of children served by CFSA may reflect in part the loss of these reports. CFSA should consider training alternative reporters outside schools: These might include postal and delivery workers and animal control officers, because child maltreatment often coincides with maltreatment of pets. This strategy is recommended by the family violence researcher Andrew Campbell, who has spoken at more than one event under the auspices of Children’s National Medical Center. 
  2. The CFSA dashboard provides no information on kinship diversion–not surprising because CFSA has so far not collected this data. This is an omission that needs to be corrected. The new CFSA policy requires the collection of some data on each diversion and the circumstances surrounding it. These data need to be available on the CFSA dashboard, but we also urge CFSA to make it a matter of policy to track these children regularly and provide regular updates via the dashboard or a public report. 
  3. CFSA should review its policies, practices and data to make sure that it is not compromising child safety in the rush to reduce the foster care rolls through kinship diversion or changed CPS practices. 
  4. The Council must recognize that CFSA relies on DBH for some of the most important services to parents and children and must be willing to allocate funding to improve the services offered by DBH in general. They also need to inform the council about the adequacy of current Domestic Violence services to meet the need among their clients. CFSA must start collecting data on the number of clients receiving these services and the amount of services they receive.
  5. CFSA should consider adding a more targeted prevention program that reaches out to parents  at risk of abuse and neglect but are not yet known to CFSA. This would probably involve developing a predictive model based on data from CFSA as well as other agencies. 
  6. The Council is to be congratulated for authorizing the creation of an Ombudsperson office for children. The implementation of this office should not be delayed as it will be very helpful in ensuring that CFSA continues to improve its performance even in the absence of the Court Monitor after the LaShawn case is closed. Moreover, I hope that with the resources provided the Ombudsperson can do a better job than I can in analyzing the data shared by CFSA.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify. I hope this testimony is helpful in your important work.

This testimony was modified on February 26, 2021 to reflect a CFSA’s clarification to hotline data included in the agency’s oversight responses. It was modified again on June 2, 2021 to clarify the foster care caseload data.

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