The Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) has updated its Data Dashboard for the fourth quarter of the District of Columbia’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2021, which included July through September of 2021. As usual, hotline calls dropped with the closure of schools for the summer, and then rose again when school started in September. However there was no dramatic onslaught of referrals when students returned to in-person school compared to what happens in a typical September after summer vacation. Hotline workers screened out a smaller percentage of referrals in the fourth quarter than they did in the previous quarter, investigating a larger percentage of them but substantiating a somewhat smaller percentage of those they investigated. CFSA served a fairly constant number of children and families in their homes throughout the year. However, the foster care caseload has been dropping fast – with an 11.5 percent decrease from in the Fiscal Year ending September 30, 2021.
Many experts have predicted that hotline calls (known as “referrals”) would skyrocket after children returned to school in person, and indeed this has happened in other jurisdictions around the country. In the District, referrals did begin increasing in the third quarter of FY 2020 and continued to increase in the two succeeding quarters, as shown in Table One, even though most children were still learning virtually. By the third quarter, there were 5,880 referrals, almost as many as the 6,058 referrals that came in the corresponding pre-pandemic quarter of 2019. The quarterly number of referrals fell drastically to only 2,997 in the fourth quarter (July through December 2021), which is a return to the seasonal pattern in which referrals drop in the summer, when school is out of session. The total number of referrals for the third quarter of 2021 (2,997) did not reach the level of the third quarter of FY 2019 (3,274), the last fiscal year before the pandemic. But fourth-quarter data hides the difference between summer vacation and school, which started on August 30 for DC Public Schools students.
As shown in Table One, referrals did rise in September 2021 to 1,148 from only 759 in August. That is considerably more than the 942 referrals in September 2020, but considerably less than the 1,377 calls in September 2019. The absolute difference in referrals between August and September of FY 2021 was smaller than in FY 2019 but the percentage difference was slightly greater. (FY 2020 showed less of an increase between August and September referrals in both number and percentage, showing the effects of the pandemic and virtual schooling.) But there was no dramatic onslaught of referrals in the wake of schools opening in person in September 2021, compared to a normal September. However, based on FY 2019 data, October brings more referrals than September, so we will see what the next quarter’s data show.
Referrals in August and September, FY 2019-FY 2020
|Referrals||FY 2019||FY 2020||2021|
Figure Two shows the number of referrals made by each reporting source in Fiscal Years 2019, 2020 and 2021. This number, which had dropped from 17,960 in FY 2019 to 14,046 in 2020 with the onset of the pandemic, bounced back to 17,422 in FY 2021, almost the same number as in FY 2019. School and daycare personnel are traditionally the largest referral source, and they actually made substantially more reports in FY2021 than they did in the pre-pandemic fiscal year, 2019 – 8,482 compared to 7,704. They also made a higher percentage of all reports–48.7% compared to 42.9 percent in FY 2019. This increase in teacher reporting relative to FY 2019 may reflect teachers’ increased concerns about children missing too many days of online schooling last spring, as well as concerns raised by seeing children in the fall for the first time in 18 months.
Once a call comes into the hotline, 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. Figures Three and Four show how as the number of referrals increased in the first three quarters of FY 2021, CFSA reduced the proportion it accepted. In an earlier post we suggested this might reflect the impact of CFSA’s belief that teachers make too many referrals for “compliance” purposes only. This belief led the agency to institute a new policy of rejecting educational neglect referrals for a family with whom the school or CFSA had been in contact within the previous 10 days of school. But in the fourth quarter, as referrals dropped after schools closed, CFSA screened out a smaller percentage of referrals. The agency screened out only 56.6 percent of referrals compared to the 75.0 percent screened out in the previous quarter. So the number of referrals accepted dropped much less than the total number of referrals received from 1124 in Quarter 3 to 1081 in Quarter 4.
Figure Five shows the large drop in the number of investigations in the first four pandemic quarters compared to four preceding quarters. In the fourth quarter of FY 2021, the number of investigations was closer to pre-pandemic levels but still lower – 1030 in FY 21 versus 1176 in FY 2019. Notably, the number of investigations hardly dropped in quarter 4 over quarter 3 even though the number of referrals (shown above) dropped greatly. This lack of a summer drop in investigations reflects the increased percentage of referrals accepted, as discussed above. It’s as if the agency was trying to keep the number of investigations constant by rejecting more referrals when they received more of them, but this may just reflect the lower credence given to referrals from schools.
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” “substantiated,” indicating that the evidence supports the allegation of maltreatment; “incomplete” (as defined in the CFSA Data Dashboard), or “child fatality,” which is defined as a “suspicious death of a child that may be due to abuse or neglect.” About 23 percent of investigations were substantiated in the most recent quarter, as shown in Figure Six. That was slightly lower than the 26 percent substantiated in the previous quarter. Figure Seven shows that number of substantiations fell in the summer quarter in accord with the smaller number of investigations and the lower substantiation rate.
When an abuse or neglect allegation is substantiated, several things may happen, depending on the assessed 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.
When a CFSA investigator considers children in a family to be at high risk of maltreatment, but not in imminent danger, the policy is to open an in-home case for monitoring and services. Figure Eight shows the number of in-home cases opened by quarter, starting in the first quarter of FY 2020.* There were slightly fewer case openings in the summer quarter than the prior quarter, reflecting the decline in the number of substantiations. Figure Nine shows that the number of in-home case closures rebounded in Quarter 4 following a decline in the previous quarter. These may be random fluctuations or they may reflect unknown factors.
Table One shows that the total number of children being served in their homes was 1,290 on September 30, 2021, very slightly down from 1299 on September 30, 2020. That is not surprising, since the difference between entries to (119) and exits from in-home services (134) was very small as well.**
\Total Number of Children Served at Home and in Foster Care, FY 2020 and FY 2021
|In-Home||In Foster Care||Total|
|Sept. 30, 2020||1299||694||1993|
|Sept. 30, 2021||1290||614||1904|
The number of children entering foster care decreased in the last quarter of FY 2021, after rebounding from a large pandemic-induced drop in the fall and winter quarters and then decreasing in the spring quarter. Fifty-nine children entered foster care in the last quarter of FY 2021, as shown in Figure Ten. Figure Eleven shows that exits from foster care decreased in Quarter 4 but were still more numerous than entries. There were 64 exits from foster care compared to 59 children entering care.
Figure Twelve shows the number and percentage of children exiting foster care for different reasons in FY 2020 and FY 2021. There were no big changes between the two years. In both years, reunification was the main reason for exits from foster care, though the percentage exiting through reunification decreased slightly from 41 percent to 39 percent, at the same time as the percentage exiting through adoption increased from 31 percent to 34 percent. CFSA does not post these data for earlier years, but perhaps this was due to a pandemic-induced suppression of adoptions in FY 2020. Smaller but still significant percentages left the system for guardianship (13 percent in 2020 and 12 percent in FY 2021) and emancipation (14 percent in FY 2020, declining to 12 percent in FY 2021), with very small numbers having died or entered the custody of another agency.
Children Exiting Foster Care by Reason for Exit, FY 2020 and FY 2021
Looking at the data for Fiscal Year 2021 in total, there were 251 entries into foster care and 327 exits in the four quarters ending on October 30, 2021. With exits eclipsing entries, the number of children in foster care should have fallen by approximately 76 children. And indeed, Table One above shows that the total number of children in foster care fell by 80 from 694 in September 2020 to 614 in September 2021.** This was a decrease of 11.5 percent, somewhat less than the 13.0 percent decrease between FY 2019 and FY 2020. The foster care rolls have been falling annually for years, but the decrease accelerated in Fiscal Year 2020, as shown in Figure Thirteen,*** and only slightly decelerated in FY 2021. When asked about the drop in the foster care rolls a year ago, CFSA responded that it reflects the agency’s continued commitment to keep families together without formal child welfare involvement when it is safe to do so.
The total number of children served in their homes and in foster care decreased from 1993 to 1904, a decrease of 4.47 percent from FY 2020 to FY 2021, as shown in Table One above. Data from earlier years is available from the Center for the Study of Social Policy for the calendar year only. Figure Fourteen shows the number of children served both in foster care and in their homes in the calendar years from 2010 to 2019 and in September of 2021. That total has been decreasing for the last two fiscal years.
In conclusion, the fourth quarter showed the normal drop in referrals with the closure of school for the summer. There was an increase in hotline calls when schools reopened in person last September, but not the overwhelming influx of calls that some had predicted with the re-opening of school buildings. The number of children and families with in-home cases stayed stable, but the foster care population continued to drop–resulting in a small decline in the number of children served by CFSA from September 2020 to September 2021. CFSA has attributed its declining foster care numbers to its continued commitment to keep families together without formal child welfare involvement when it is safe to do so. We can only hope that CFSA is fulfilling this commitment without jeopardizing child safety.
*These numbers include all in-home cases opened as a result of CPS investigations. It does not include a small number of cases opened as a result of case transfers from foster care or adoption units or in-home cases that are the result of reunifications and are managed by the foster care units.
**There is a small difference between the number of exits (134) minus entries (119) from in-home care and the year-to-year difference in the number of children in in-home care (9) and a similar small difference between the number of exits minus entries to foster care (76) and the year-to-year difference in the foster care caseload (80). The small anomalies reflects standard data entry delays when there is a change in a child’s status.
***The accelerated decrease in the foster care rolls did not seem to be related to the pandemic. When we compared data from March to September of 2019 and 2020, we found that 74 fewer children entered foster care and 68 fewer children exited it, suggesting that the pandemic had little effect on the total foster care caseload.