Headlines in New York and nationally echo a theme: “Child advocates fear uptick in child abuse cases,” “Coronavirus lockdown shields abused kids from watchful eyes,” “Prepare for surge of child abuse cases after quarantine.” Calls to the child abuse hotline are significantly lower, likely due to mandated reporters like teachers not “laying eyes” on children as often. If the expected post-COVID spike in child abuse and neglect reports does happen, it is quite likely that some of these children will be placed in foster care.
The number of New York City children coming into foster care is also lower this spring than in previous years. But that’s not unusual; in fact, new admissions into foster care have been consistently trending lower for years, and the number of children in foster care as of February is 7,718. In the 1990’s, tens of thousands of children were in the City’s care.
What’s driven this change? New York City, more than any other region of the country, has invested in and thoroughly utilized prevention programs. “Prevention,” in child welfare, has a dual meaning: prevent child maltreatment and prevent placement into foster care. These programs are designed to provide a scaffold of safety around families while supporting parents in meeting their families’ needs. The end result: stronger families, safer children, fewer admissions to foster care.
One of the reasons these programs effectively lower foster care rates is they address the reasons behind the majority of hotline calls, reports of child neglect. Sometimes a parent needs resources like food, which a prevention program can help with while also assisting the parent apply for SNAP. Perhaps it’s teaching a new parent how to care for a child, or helping a parent learn how to handle the complications of a special-needs child; prevention programs do this work in their communities. Families struggling with mental or behavioral health issues might need more structured evidence-based prevention programs. And to truly strengthen families and communities, the city provides primary prevention services in the Family Enrichment Centers, where families can go when they recognize they could use an assist—well before their family’s needs escalate into a hotline call.
During this pandemic and the stay-at-home order, the city’s prevention program workers have continued to go out into their communities to meet families’ needs, assisting with emergency food deliveries, distance-learning and other web-based technology, personal protective gear, cleaning supplies, and other essential supports. The familiar (though masked) face coming to the door with a supportive voice and listening ear have helped countless families throughout these months. Prevention caseworker contacts with families are up by more than 100 percent, and workers have doubled their engagements with the most hard-to-reach youth as families respond to needed services. In child welfare services, re-opening will mean addressing a surge in parental unemployment, food and housing insecurities, managing children that are no longer in daily school settings, and dealing with a significant number of losses of a Black and Brown parents who are the hardest hit by COVID-19deaths.
So, if re-opening means many more CPS cases, what of those foster care predictions? “Predictions” are all they are, and things don’t have to happen that way. Building on the great work these prevention services workers have done, why not surge the opening of new services to meet the expected demand? Why not put in place exactly those supports that those families will need? New York City has the strongest prevention services in the nation, so why not meet the surge in need with a surge in these services? “More children in foster care” is not the result anyone wants. We can do better: better for these families, better for the children, better for the communities most impacted, and certainly better for New York City. COVID-19 showed us how much families rely on these programs, and we need them now more than ever.
Jim Purcell is the President and CEO of the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies, which represents over 100 nonprofits providing child welfare services in New York City and across New York State.