The Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) has updated its Data Dashboard for April through June 2021, which is the third quarter of the District of Columbia’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2021 and the fifth quarter of the COVID-19 pandemic. The new data show that calls to the CFSA hotline have almost returned to pre-pandemic levels as school and childcare staff have increased their hotline calls. However, instead of increasing its investigations to pre-pandemic levels, the agency has been screening out more of these calls every quarter, resulting in a number of investigations that is only 70 percent of its pre-pandemic level for the equivalent quarter. CFSA has maintained a fairly constant number of children and families with in-home cases over the past 12 months. However, the foster care caseload has been dropping fast–with a 14.5 percent decrease from June 2020 to June 2021.
Figure One below shows the quarterly number of calls to the CFSA hotline, known as “referrals,” starting in the quarter beginning in January 2019 to enable comparison with pre-pandemic levels. The FY 2019 data represents seasonal variation in referrals in a normal year, with referrals falling in the summer quarter when schools are closed, then rising again in the fall, winter and spring quarters. The pattern changed with the large drop in referrals in the first pandemic quarter of April through June 2020. After remaining low in the summer, referrals rose each quarter starting with October through December 2020. By the most recent quarter, April through June 2021, there were 5,880 referrals, almost as many as the 6058 referrals that came in the corresponding pre-pandemic quarter of 2019.
Figure Two shows the number of hotline calls made by each reporting source, which are available only on an annual basis from CFSA. School and daycare personnel are traditionally the largest referral source, having made 7,704 calls, or 42.9 percent of calls to the hotline, in FY 2019. But they made only 5,006 calls, or 35 percent of calls, in the pandemic fiscal year that ended in September 2020. This is not surprising. While childcare centers resumed operations during the first two quarters of the pandemic, most public and charter schools were operating virtually during that time. Moreover, many children were struggling to log into class, and teachers may have been unwilling to make CPS referrals for students who were not participating due to connectivity problems. But in the first nine months of FY 2021, starting in October 2020, school and childcare staff made 7,610 calls – almost as many as the 7,704 they made in the entire 12 months of FY 2019. In other words, school and childcare providers were reporting at a higher rate and are on track to make more reports in FY 2021 than in the pre-pandemic FY 2019. The percentage of calls that were from schools and childcare centers increased to 47.7 percent in the current fiscal year to date–which is higher than the pre-pandemic share of 42.9 percent in FY 2019. This rebound in referrals from schools and childcare centers could reflect teachers’ concerns about children that returned to classrooms; it could also reflect concerns about those who did not return and teachers’ increased willingness to make reports about children who have been attending sporadically throughout the school year.
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. As shown in Figure Three, as the number of referrals increased in each quarter, CFSA has reduced the proportion it accepts, thus avoiding a large increase in the number of investigations. The number of referrals more than doubled from 2,396 in the quarter ending September 30, 2020 to 5,880 in the quarter that ended on June 30, 2021. But the number of referrals accepted for investigation increased by only about 17 percent, from 957 to 1124, during the same period. Instead of accepting these new referrals, CFSA was screening them out. In fact, CFSA has been screening out a higher proportion of referrals in each quarter as the number of referrals has increased. The proportion of referrals that were screened out increased from 51.3 percent of referrals in the quarter ending September 30, 2020 to 75 percent of referrals in the quarter ending June 30, 2021, as shown in Figure Four.
In a recent post, I reported that CFSA sent a message to DC Public Schools (DCPS) and the Public Charter School Board early in March 2021 describing a new practice in screening referrals for educational neglect “due to the influx of reports for potential educational neglect and furthermore the city-wide attendance issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.” Under the new procedure, CFSA would reject any educational neglect referral for a family with whom the school or CFSA had been in contact within the previous 10 days of school, with some exceptions. It is not clear when CFSA implemented this procedure. It was already screening out 72 percent of referrals in the quarter ending March 30; this increased slightly to 75.2 percent in the quarter ending June 30, 2021, although the number screened out increased from 3,541 to 4,423 in the spring quarter. Of course, these numbers and percentages include all referrals and not just those for educational neglect: Child Welfare Monitor has requested data on educational neglect referrals from CFSA.
Figure Five shows the large drop in the number of investigation in the first four pandemic quarters compared to the analogous pre-pandemic quarters. The fifth pandemic quarter continues the pattern. CFSA reported only 1,092 investigations, or only 70 percent of the 1549 investigations in the spring quarter of FY 2019. We have seen that the number of hotline calls had almost reached pre-pandemic levels in that quarter – but the number of investigations did not follow suit, because so many referrals were screened out as described above.
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.”
The percentage of investigations that resulted in a substantiation (shown in red) has not changed greatly during the pandemic. It has varied between 21 percent and 26 percent per quarter since the Spring quarter of FY 2019, as shown in Figure Six. Figure Seven shows that the number of substantiations increased from 206 in the quarter ending September 2020 to 279 in the most recent quarter, but is still considerably lower than the 379 substantiated investigations in the same quarter of FY 2019, before the pandemic. The failure of substantiations to rebound to Spring 2019 levels reflects CFSA’s screening out an increased proportion of referrals as the number of referrals increased.
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. CFSA’s Data Dashboard provides data on how many cases are opened for in-home services and 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.** The figure shows a large drop in the number in-home case openings in the third quarter of FY 2020, following the onset of the pandemic. This undoubtedly reflects the decline in referrals, investigations, and substantiated reports during that period. Case openings were even lower in the summer quarter, then rebounded somewhat to a total of 131 case openings in the third quarter of FY 2021.
Like in-home case openings, in-home case closures also fell immediately following the pandemic shutdowns, as Figure Nine illustrates. This is not surprising in light of the effects of the pandemic. In-person visits to families with in-home cases became virtual, and there may have been some disruption as new protocols were put into place and online connections were established. Many parents with in-home cases rely on services from other agencies, such as mental health and treatment, to complete their case plans, and these services were presumably disrupted as well. These disruptions doubtless made it difficult for parents to complete required services and thus resulted in a postponement of case closures. Presumably, virtual home visits and services were put into place and bolstered in the following quarters. In-home case closures rebounded in three quarters after April through June 2020, though they fell again to 87 in the Spring quarter of 2021, for unknown reasons. But these are small numbers and random fluctuations can occur.
There were 477 in-home cases opened and a very similar 457 closed in the four quarters ending June 30, 2021, which suggests that the number of open cases changed little over the period. The number of families with in-home cases indeed changed little from June 30 2020 to June 30 2021–from 1,429 to 1,398, as shown in Table One. The total number of children being served in their homes was 1,398 as of June 30, 2021, a very slight decrease from the year before.
Total Children Served in their Homes, June 2019, 2020, and 2021.
|Date||Number of Children Served||Change from Previous Year|
As I have described in earlier posts, there was a big drop in foster care entries before the pandemic, with a surprising increase in entries in the first full pandemic quarter; quarterly entries have remained between 60 and 70 for the last three quarters. Sixty-two children entered foster care in the Spring quarter of 2021, similar to the 64 who entered foster care in the same quarter of FY 2020, as shown in Figure Ten. Figure Eleven shows that while the pandemic seemed to delay foster care exits in its initial stages, that effect seems to have dissipated as the agency and courts adapted to virtual operations. The number of children exiting foster care increased slightly in the Spring quarter of 2021. There were 86 exits from foster care, compared to 62 entries in the March-June quarter resulting in a decrease in the foster care population from 648 children on March 30, 2021 to 624 on June 30.
Looking at the data for the most recent four quarters, there were 234 entries into foster care and 340 exits in the four quarters ending on June 30, 2021. With exits eclipsing entries, the number of children in foster care had to fall. And indeed, Table Two shows that the total number of children in foster care fell from 740 in June 2020 to 624 in June 2021, a decrease of 14.5 percent, very similar to the 14 percent decrease the year before. The foster care rolls have been falling annually for years, but the decrease accelerated in Fiscal Year 2020, as I described in recent testimony. It looks like FY 2021 will show the same trend when the year is complete. When I asked about this trend a year ago, CFSA responded that it reflects CFSA’s continued commitment to keep families together without formal child welfare involvement when it is safe to do so.
Total Children Served in Foster Care as of June 30
|Date||Number of Children Served||Change from Previous Year|
|June 30, 2019||850|
|June 30, 2020||730||-14.1%|
|June 30, 2021||624||-14.5%|
In conclusion, the third quarter of FY 2021 saw the number of referrals (calls to the CFSA hotline) recover almost to pre-pandemic levels. CFSA responded by screening out more of these referrals and increasing the number of investigations only slightly. CFSA reported only 1,092 investigations, compared to 1549 in the spring quarter of FY 2019. The number of children and families with in-home cases stayed stable, but the foster care population continued to drop–by an annual rate of about 14.5 percent. 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. Whether CFSA is fulfilling this commitment without jeopardizing child safety remains to be seen.
*DCPS buildings closed in March 2020 and remained closed for all students for the remainder of the academic year. Only a few students were welcomed into school buildings in the fall of 2020. Schools reopened in person in February 2021 to some students, but still only about 20 percent of DCPS students and most only part-time.
**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.