COVID-19 Can Drive Equitable Child Welfare Policy
The current national conversation on the ways institutional racism is embedded within our public systems is desperately needed and long overdue. While the justice system deserves the focus it has received, the child welfare system also demands significant reform.
Decades of data show that families of color are subject to child protection investigations and state oversight at disproportionately high rates. Children of color are separated from their parents more often, experience a higher number of placements while in foster care, and are reunited with their families less frequently than their white counterparts.1 These disparities are especially pronounced for Black and Native American families.
The current pandemic highlights the urgent need to acknowledge how child welfare policies contribute to these disparate outcomes. As COVID-19 has forced agencies across the country to quickly shift operations, interim policies and procedures have been put in place with serious impact on children and families. Coupled with existing gaps in the system, many of these policies have the potential to exacerbate current inequities and create new barriers for families of color.
Families working toward reunification have been particularly affected by the changes to child welfare policies and practice in response to COVID-19. Delayed or suspended court operations have slowed the process for families seeking reunification, while decreased community-based services have left system-involved families with less support. At the same time, major changes to family visitation policies have interrupted a critical aspect of support for children safely returning home.
At the start of the pandemic, many child welfare agencies suspended or reduced in-person family time, also called visitation, between children and their parents or siblings—oftentimes in ways that did not align with federal guidance. These changes were made without adequate support to ensure that virtual visits via phone and video conference were equitably accessible for all separated families.
Interruptions to quality family visitation caused by the pandemic are sure to have significant consequences. Research shows that visitation frequency greatly affects children’s well-being. Children in foster care who have frequent contact with their parents exhibit far fewer behavioral issues, adjust better to placement, and report less anxiety and depression than children whose visits with parents are either infrequent or nonexistent.2 Regular and consistent family time can reduce the trauma associated with removal and decrease the sense of abandonment that children often experience when they are separated from their families.
Perhaps most importantly, visitation is highly correlated with successful reunification. Contact between a child and their biological family is the single most important factor related to whether the child remains in out-of-home care.3 Any interruption to high-quality visitation and reunification services can have lifelong consequences for families: The time a parent is given to work toward reunification before their parental rights are terminated is currently limited by federal timelines enacted by the Adoption and Safe Families Act.4
Despite the essential nature of family time, child welfare agencies have historically struggled to ensure frequent and high-quality visits between parents and their children in care. Visits are usually held outside the home, in office-like settings, and without adequate opportunities for natural parent-child interactions. Workers can create barriers to reunification by documenting their observations of family time without providing real-time parenting skill coaching or even transparent conversations with a parent about the worker’s concerns. For families of non-dominant cultures, typical visitation practices have the potential to be particularly devastating due to the likelihood of white- and dominant- class and cultured assumptions being embedded in the system assessment of parenting practice.
Ensuring that policies provide equitable opportunities for parents to connect with their children, in their communities, while supporting those parents in building and practicing new skills is vital to just and ethical child welfare practice.
Where To Start
It is time to reimagine and fight for the child welfare system our families deserve. As the pandemic continues, reviewing how both interim and long-standing visitation policies affect equitable reunification outcomes is a necessary first step. Immediate changes should be made where policies and practice create undue barriers to family reunification, particularly for families of color. To begin, child welfare leaders and system partners should consider the following.
- What new or different policies, protocols, and practices were instituted at the start of the pandemic? How has the agency made these changes accessible to community partners and families?
- Who helped develop these policies and whose perspectives may be missing? If any interim policies will remain in place permanently, have they been reviewed by people most likely to be personally affected?
- To what extent might these policies disproportionately impact communities of color? Does policy require consistent documentation of suspended or altered visitation, and are key data disaggregated for race/ethnicity to understand impact across communities?
- Do policies align with federal guidance against blanket suspensions of in-person visits? Consider whether policy defines a standard set of case-specific considerations to support consistent decision making across workers.
- Does policy address and support equitable access to technology for virtual visits? Consider whether policy requires social workers to document actions to address disparate access to technology before resorting to more restrictive contact.
- Do policies work to ensure that the quality of parenting time is upheld when transitioning to virtual visits? In what ways are birth parents, children, and foster parents supported?
- In what ways are the systemic barriers to ensuring equitable and effective visitation during the pandemic acknowledged and considered when making reunification recommendations for families?
The COVID-19 pandemic provides an unexpected and urgent opportunity to reexamine the legacy of racism embedded in our child welfare system policies and practices. The barriers emerging in light of the pandemic are not new, but instead lay bare the cracks in our system that have contributed to, or been complacent with, decades of disparate outcomes for families of color. While the extent of the pandemic’s repercussions on children and families involved in the child welfare system is not yet fully known, we need to hold ourselves and our system accountable for building equitable policies. All of us who care about child safety, permanency, and well-being have a role to play in this work. In acknowledging the ways our system has failed to meet the needs of vulnerable children and families, we can begin to reimagine the system families deserve.
Claire Crowley is a program associate with NCCD.
1 Synthesis of Research on Disproportionality in Child Welfare: An Update https://www.issuelab.org/resource/synthesis-of-research-on-disproportionality-in-child-welfare-an-update.html
2 Haight, Kagle, & Black, 2003; Mallon & Hess, 2005; McWey, Acock, & Porter, 2010; Smariga, 2007
3 Hess, 2003; Mallon & Hess, 2005; California Validation of the SDM® Reunification Reassessment, 2010, https://www.nccdglobal.org/sites/default/files/publication_pdf/crr_validation_report.pdf
4 Federal timelines enacted through ASFA, with few exceptions, require state agencies to file a petition to terminate parental rights when a child has been in foster care for 15 of the most recent 22 months. Public Law 105-89, The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, https://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/cb/pi9802.pdf