CFSA in the third quarter of FY 2021: rejecting more referrals, serving fewer kids

On Tuesday, Judge Thomas F. Hogan approved a settlement in the 32-year-old case now called LaShwan vs. Bowser–a suit which was filed in 1989 alleging major mismanagement in the District’s foster care system. Today, Mayor Bowser announced the end of court oversight over the Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA). Nevertheless, released by CFSA concerning its operations in the quarter ending March 31, 2021 shows there is still reasons for concern about whether CFSA is complying with its mandate of protecting DC children in a time of pandemic.

A major concern for child advocates has been the possibility that the COVID-19 pandemic would have a double effect–increasing abuse and neglect and also making it less likely to be discovered. As we have already reported, data from the District of Columbia Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) indeed showed a drastic drop in calls to the CFSA hotline at the onset of the pandemic and associated closures. The most recent data, from the quarter ending March 31, 2021, show the beginning of a return to normal levels of hotline calls, with an uptick in calls from schools and child care providers. But just when calls are starting to return to normal, the agency seems to be focused on limiting these calls and screening out as many as possible. Moreover, a large decrease in the total child population served by CFSA (including those served both in their homes and in foster care) over the course of the pandemic is of concern as it is unlikely to reflect an equal reduction in the number of abused and neglected children.

CFSA’s Data Dashboard is updated 45 days after the end of each quarter. Child Welfare Monitor DC reported on FY 2021 Quarter One (October to December 2020) update in Testimony at the CFSA oversight hearing conducted by the DC Council’s Human Services Committee on February 25, 2021. We also reported on some preliminary data from Quarter two in a post entitled CFSA, DCPS and the Safety of children not in school buildings. This post integrates the full Dashboard data from Quarter Two (the quarter ending March 31, 2021) into an overview of trends since the onset of the pandemic.

Referrals

Figure One below shows the monthly number of calls to the CFSA hotline, known as “referrals,” from March 2020, when the pandemic emergency began, through March 2021, compared to the same dates of the previous year. (Note that March 2020 is included in both 13-month periods as the pandemic closures began in the first half of that month). DC’s sudden closure of schools for an extended spring break in March 2020 was followed by a chaotic virtual reopening, as schools and nonprofits strove to get children connected with computers and internet service. Not surprisingly, the first three months of the pandemic produced a drastic drop in hotline calls, investigations, and substantiated cases of maltreatment. Reports stayed at basically the same level from April to August, unlike a normal year, when reports drop after schools close.

Perhaps in part due to new guidance for educators produced by CFSA about how to spot abuse and neglect in a virtual environment, referrals rose In October 2020 and began to approach the previous year’s level in November and December, then dropping slightly in January in contrast to an uptick in January of 2021. But the number of referrals increased from 1,224 in January 2021 to 1,408 in February and took a staggering jump to 2,233 in March. We don’t know the extent to which this change was due to the fact that about 20 percent of the school system’s population returned to school early in February. Perhaps there was an onslaught of reports from teachers seeing students in person for the first time that school year. March was the first month where the pre-pandemic and pandemic curves crossed: the 2021 uptick contrasted with a downturn in March 2020 when pandemic closures began. In fact, there were many more calls (2,253) in March 2021 than in March 2019 (1858), when all schools were open.

Figure One

Source: Data from CFSA Dashboard and data provided by CFSA for January-March 2020.
Note: March 2020 data are shown twice in this table

The number of hotline calls per quarter is shown in Figure Two. This quarterly view shows how referrals plunged in the first full pandemic quarter (April-June 2020) and have increased in each quarter since then. The total number of referrals fell from 18,751 in the four quarters ending March 2020 to 13,172 in the four quarters ending March 31, 2021.

Figure Two

Source: CFSA Data Dashboard, https://cfsadashboard.dc.gov/page/hotline-calls-referral-type

While monthly data on reporting source are not available, annual data for FY 2020 shown in Figure Three suggest that a decline in reports from school personnel was a major factor behind the fall in referrals overall. In FY 2019, school and childcare personnel made 42.9 percent of all calls to the hotline, but this percentage went down to 35 percent in the pandemic year of 2020. But in FY 2021 to date the percentage of calls that come from teachers actually increased to 47.7 percent–which is higher than the pre-pandemic share of 42.9 percent in FY 2019. This change reflects the big increase in referrals from schools in March, after some children returned to school.

Figure Three

Source: CFSA Data Dashboard, https://cfsadashboard.dc.gov/node/1435406

Once a referral arrives, it can be accepted as an “information and referral” to be referred to another agency, accepted for investigation, linked to an existing open investigation, or screened out as not requiring any response. It is interesting to look at the numbers (Figure Four) and percentages (Figure Five) of referrals that are assigned to these four categories. Figure Four shows the large drop in the total number of referrals at the onset of the pandemic in April 2020, and the resultant rapid drop in the numbers of referrals that were screened out and accepted. But as the total number of referrals started increasing in September 2020, CFSA began screening out more of these referrals and maintaining a similar number of referrals accepted for investigation. The increase in the number of referrals in February (from 1224 to 1408) resulted in a decline in accepted referrals that month, and a near doubling of calls in March 2021 (from 1408 to 2253) resulted in a much smaller increase of accepted referrals from 307 to 379. Basically, the number of referrals accepted for investigation remained similar from September 2020 (345) to March 2021 (379) despite the big increase in referrals after November.

Figure Four

Source: CFSA Data Dashboard, https://cfsadashboard.dc.gov/page/hotline-calls-referral-type

Figure Five shows that with the rapid drop in referrals due to the pandemic, CFSA began accepting a higher percentage of those referrals starting from May to August 2020. But starting in September 2020, as CFSA began getting more calls, screeners began screening out a higher percentage and accepting a lower percentage or referrals. This trend accelerated in February and March of 2021 with the increase in calls to the hotline. This is particularly notable in March 2021, when the number of calls to the hotline jumped from to 2233 from 1408 the previous month. Confronted with this onslaught of new calls, CFSA increased the percentage screened out from 62.9 percent in January 2021 to 71.1 in February to 78.6 percent in March.

Figure Five

This decline in acceptance of referrals is not surprising because CFSA, citing an influx of referrals in the fourth quarter of previous years, made a conscious effort to reduce calls by telling educators that unnecessary calls would be screened out, as described in our previous post, CFSA, DCPS and the safety of children not in school buildings. CFSA’s increased tendency to screen out referrals is somewhat concerning, especially combined with the strong discouragement of referrals in their most recent guidance. Data provided by CFSA in response to a request from Councilmember Nadeau, shown in Figure Five, shows there is reason for concern. The number of educational neglect referrals fell from 3,368 in the pre-pandemic school year of 2018-2019 to 2,378 In 2019-2020, which was interrupted by COVID-19 in March. In the current academic year as of March 31, 2021, educational neglect referrals came roaring back. CFSA had already received 3,581 educational neglect referrals as of March 31–more than in the full pre-pandemic year. But the number of accepted educational neglect referrals declined from 956 in SY 2018-2019 to 443 in SY 2019-2020 to 258 in the current school year through March 31.

FIgure Five

Source: Data provided by CFSA

Figure Six shows the percentage of educational neglect referrals that were accepted, screened out and other. CFSA accepted 28.4 percent and screened out 71.6 percent of educational neglect referrals in the pre-pandemic academic year, 2018-2019. In the disrupted School Year (SY) 2019-2020, CFSA accepted 18.6 percent of educational neglect referrals and screened out 81.3%. And in the current academic year as of March 31, 2021, CFSA had accepted only 7.2 percent of educational neglect referrals and screened out 86.9 percent.

Figure Six

Source: Data provided by CFSA

CFSA’s intent to keep a lid on educational neglect referrals is understandable. Administrators are presumably afraid of being overwhelmed by referrals of educational neglect. Moreover, there has been considerable pushback by activists in jurisdictions like New York City about reports of parents being investigated for educational neglect when they were not able to obtain computers or internet service. However, it is important to note that while categorized as “educational neglect,” referrals from schools about absences often serve a much broader purpose than ensuring that children are going to school. Chronic absence is often the first indicator that the child is not safe. It may even be an indicator that the child is missing. In the case of Relisha Rudd, who disappeared in 2014 and was never found, 18 days of absences did not trigger a report to CFSA because the absences were excused with the help of a bogus “doctor” who was probably Relisha’s abductor.

Investigations

An investigation can have several possible results. It can result in a finding of “inconclusive,” meaning the evidence is insufficient to prove maltreatment despite some indications it occurred; “unfounded,” which means “there was not sufficient evidence to conclude or suspect child maltreatment has occurred,” or “substantiated,” indicating that the evidence supports the allegation of maltreatment. (See the CFSA Data Dashboard for the full definitions of these terms as well as of “incomplete investigations.”) It takes up to 30 days, and sometimes more, to complete an investigation, so the trends tend to reflect the previous month’s referrals. Figure Seven shows that the trend in substantiated investigations is very similar to the trend in hotline calls, but with a time lag of about a month. There was a huge decline in substantiated investigations in May, June and July 2020 compared to 2019. Substantiated investigations almost caught up to normal levels in August and September, reflecting the normal decline in hotline during any normal summer, and then fell somewhat below the previous year during the fall. Just as hotline calls approached normal in November and December, so did substantiated investigations in December, January, and February. But in March 2021 there was a big decline in substantiated investigations relative to March 2020, a month that may have been already affected by the pandemic. This may reflect that in January and February, the number of calls again lagged behind the numbers for the previous year. It will be interesting to see what happens in April, after the bulge in new referrals in March.

Figure Seven

Source: CFSA Data Dashboard, https://cfsadashboard.dc.gov/page/investigations-abuse-and-neglect

Educational neglect data provided to the office of Councilmember Nadeau and displayed in Figure Eight show that the proportion of educational neglect referrals that were substantiated increased between School Year (SY) 2018-2019 and SY 2019-2020 (when the pandemic began) and again in SY 2020-2021 as of March 31, 2021. These data may be related to the fact that proportion of referrals that was accepted for investigation has dropped so greatly. Perhaps by screening out such a high proportion of referrals, CFSA is also screening out more allegations that are not worthy of substantiation. But one wonders if there is a cost to this increased discrimination. Perhaps they are also screening out more allegations that would have been substantiated.

Figure Eight

When an abuse or neglect allegation is substantiated, several things may happen, depending on the perceived level of risk to the child or children in the home. The agency may take no action, refer the family to a community-based collaborative, open an in-home case, or place the child or children in foster care. 

In-Home Services

When a CFSA investigator considers children in a family to be at high risk of maltreatment, but not meet “in imminent danger of serious harm,” the policy is to open an in-home case for monitoring and servies. In-home cases have become much more common than foster care placements as CFSA has been been laser-focused on keeping children in their homes. On March 31, 2021 there were only 648 children in foster care compared with 1259 children being served in their homes, or 34 percent and 66 percent of the 1907 children being served in total, as Table One shows.

Table One: Number of Children Served in foster care and in their Homes, March 31, 2021

In HomeIn Foster Care Total
Children Served1259 (66%) 648 (34%)1907 (100%)
Source: CFSA Data Dashboard, https://cfsadashboard.dc.gov/page/total-children-and-families-served-their-homes

Based on the early data from the CFSA dashboard discussed in an earlier post, there was a drastic drop in in-home case openings after CPS investigations with the onset of the pandemic. The total number of in-home cases opened in the pandemic months of March to June dropped from 533 in March-June 2019 to 267 in the same months of 2020–a decrease of 50 percent. However CFSA stopped publishing these data after the quarter ending June 2020 because the dashboard was not populating as expected, according to CFSA’s response to Child Welfare Monitor DC. So we do not know if that 50 percent decrease was correct nor how many cases have opened since that quarter. But we do know the number of children and families being served in their homes has dropped drastically since the start of the pandemic. The number of children served in their homes dropped by 12.6 percent from 1,441 to 1,259 between March 31, 2020 and the same date in 2021, as shown in Table Two below. This drop in children served in their homes is seriously concerning as in-home services are CFSA’s main way of monitoring the safety of children who are at risk of harm at home.

Table Two: Total Children Served in in their Homes, March 31, 2019, 2020, and 2021

DateMarch 31, 2019March 31, 2020March 31, 202
March 31, 2019136514411259
Source: CFSA Data Dashboard, cfsadashboard.dc.gov

Foster Care

Figure Nine examines foster care entries from March 2020 to March 2021, compared to the previous 13-month period. From March 2020, when the pandemic hit, through November 2020, foster care entries were always lower in the pandemic period, although the number of entries in July 2020 was almost identical to those in July 2019. But starting in December 2020 and continuing through March 2021, foster care entries each month were higher than that month in the previous year. The explanation for this trend is not obvious. Hotline calls and substantiated investigations did not eclipse prior-year levels until March 2021. But I pointed out in an earlier post the pandemic did not seem to be the main cause for changes in foster care entries earlier in the pandemic and this may continue to be the case.

Figure Nine

As shown in Figure Ten, there was a big decrease in foster care entries before the onset of the pandemic from the quarter ending March 31 2019 to the quarter ending September 30, 2019. After that quarter, foster care entries bounced up and down. Nevertheless there was some decline in foster care entries in the pandemic four quarters starting April 2020 compared to the previous four quarters. The number of entries in the four quarters before the pandemic (April 2019 to March 2020) was 269. In the four quarters beginning April 2020, the number of entries was 236. So the number of foster care entries during the pandemic period dropped by 33, or roughly 12.6 percent.

Figure Ten

Source: CFSA Data Dashboard, https://cfsadashboard.dc.gov/page/children-entering-or-re-entering-foster-care-during-fiscal-year

Foster Care Exits

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 2020 than in the same months in 2019, as Figure Eleven shows. This pattern changed after September, with monthly exits sometimes higher and sometimes lower than the previous year, perhaps as the agency and service providers adjusted to pandemic conditions and delayed reunifications began to occur.

Figure Eleven

Source: CFSA Data Dashboard, https://cfsadashboard.dc.gov/page/total-number-exits

Looking at the total number of foster care exits over time, we can see that foster care exits began to increase after the first two pandemic quarters. But exits did decrease overall during the pandemic period. The total number of foster care exits was 324 during the pandemic year from April 2020 to March 2021 compared to 400 in the previous four quarters, as shown in Figure Twelve.

Figure Twelve

During the four quarters approximately corresponding to the pandemic, there were 236 entries into foster care and 324 exits. As a result of the surplus of exits over entries, the total number of children in foster care declined from 737 in March 2020 to 648 in March 2020, which was a decline of 12 percent–similar to the 13 percent that we found occurred between September 2019 and September 2020. This is a continuation of a multiyear decrease in foster care caseloads. However, we did note in earlier testimony that the percentage drop in the number of children in foster care was greater in FY 2020 than in any other year since FY 2014. So the decline in the foster care rolls seems to be accelerating.

As shown in Table Three, the total number of children served either in-home or in foster care dropped from 2,178 on March 31, 2019 to 1,907 on March 31, 2020–a whopping 12.4 percent, which inclded a drop of 12.6 percent in children with in-home cases and 12.4 percent in children in foster care. It is important to note that this is a decrease of over 12 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. Moreover, while the drop in foster cases can be seen as continuing an earlier trend, the drop in in-home cases cannot: the number of in-home cases dropped only slightly more than two percent in the previous year.

Table Three

DateIn-Home
No. (diff. from prev. year)
Foster Care
No. (diff. from prev. year)
Total
No. (difference from previous year)
March 31, 201913658672232
March 31, 20201441 (5.6%)737 (-15.0%)2178 (-2.4%)
March 31, 20211259 (-12.6%)648 (-12.1%)1907 (-12.4%)
Source: CFSA Data Dashboard, cfsadashboard.dc.gov

To look further back, we used figures from the Center for the Study of Social Policy that date back to 2010 showing the total number of children served in foster care and in home on the last day of the fiscal year. Figure Thirteen shows that this total number served was actually increasing between FY 2017 and FY 2019 as continuing declines in the foster care population were offset by increases in the in-home population.

Figure Thirteen

Source, Center for the Study of Social Policy, LaShawn A. v. Bowser, Progress Report for the Period April – December 2019, available at https://cssp.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/LaShawn-A-v.-Bowser-Report-for-the-Period-of-April-1-December-31-2019.pdf, and CFSA Data Dashboard (for 2020 data), at https://cfsadashboard.dc.gov/page/total-children-and-families-served-their-homes. Note: there is an inconsistency between CFSA and CSSP in home totals for 2019–1376 (CSSP) vs. .1348 (CFSA)

So the large (12.4 percent) drop in the number of children served by CFSA was not a continuation of an earlier trend. Foster care, but not in-home, caseloads were decreasing before the pandemic. It is extremely unlikely the number of abused and neglected children dropped by 12.4 percent from March 2020 to March 2021. It appears that this big decline results from a combination of a continuing decline in foster care placement and a reduction in in-home case openings due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is concerning that the agency is serving a significantly decreased population compared to before the pandemic.

In sum, the newest CFSA Dashboard data show some encouraging signs of a movement toward normalcy. Referrals for March 2021 are higher than they were two years before and the number of investigations that are substantiated is approaching pre-pandemic levels as well. However, CFSA has displayed a concerning tendency to screen out a large percentage of the new referrals that are coming in. It is clear that CFSA responded to COVID-19 by screening out more education neglect referrals than ever before. And large decreases in the number of children receiving either in-home services or foster care as of March 31, 2021 compared to a year before raises the question of whether CFSA is performing its duty to protect abused and neglected children in the District. As the agency exits from court oversight in the LaShawn class action suit, it is important to ensure that some oversight continues. As we will argue in upcoming testimony, the Council should authorize an Ombudsperson for CFSA to make sure that somebody is monitoring agency operations in the interests of the District’s abused and neglected children.

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