Child Welfare System Forced to Adapt During COVID-19 Pandemic

More efforts are needed to strengthen support systems that keep families together

By: Sarah Vidrine | June 2020

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North Carolina’s child welfare system is fraught with serious challenges at the best of times. Its capacity to respond to children’s needs is challenged by entrenched poverty, systemic racism, parental incarceration, huge variation across county-run programs, and more. Social workers are stretched thin, foster and kinship placements are very limited, and adequate treatment resources are difficult to find. COVID-19 has piled onto these challenges, but there is much we can do right now to bolster families and their support systems.  

Unsafe Conditions for Children

COVID-19 has proven to exacerbate family stress and isolation – both risk factors for child maltreatment. Unemployment is nearly 15% now, the worst it’s been since the Great Depression. Schools and many early education centers are still closed, leaving kids at home and parents unable to work. Families that were already struggling don’t have access to many of their usual support systems, like grandparent care and school nutrition.

Erin Drew, Executive Director of The Family Place in Transylvania County recently explained to NC Health News what this unprecedented social isolation and economic burden adds to existing challenges in families like substance abuse and mental health struggles. “You think about families who are isolated and how a small situation can set things off” in normal times, she said. “It’s almost a trifecta of issues that can blow up.”  

We likely won’t know the full extent of the problem for some time. Reports of child abuse and neglect have dropped significantly, because those who typically call them in – doctors and teachers, for example – are seeing children so much less. The child welfare system in North Carolina relies on these individuals who regularly see children to report suspicions of abuse or neglect. And with kids out of schools, parents missing well-child visits, and families isolated even from friends and neighbors, incidents of mistreatment are even more out of view.

RESOURCE: Educators, Essential Workers & Volunteers: Help Keep Kids Safe During COVID-19, from our colleagues at Prevent Child Abuse NC

Child Welfare System Adapts to New Restrictions

While county-based agencies are confronted with the challenges of keeping children safe without their regular reporting and investigation structures in place, they must also adapt to new ways of supporting children and families who are engaged with the system. We’re seeing varying ways of operating by county: Some families with children in foster care might be required to continue in-person visitation, increasing risk for exposure to COVID-19. In other counties, all visits between children and their parents must be held virtually.

While virtual visits are an important safety precaution, they can also pose a challenge if there’s limited broadband, or a family doesn’t have the technology to participate. The federal government encourages case-by-case decision making about virtual visitation – but hasn’t supplied much guidance to facilitate that process.

Adding to these challenges, many court matters were postponed for months, creating a backlog of cases. While some courts had the capacity to hold virtual hearings, others simply postponed them. For some children who were on the cusp of reunifying with their families or moving in with relatives, the postponements delayed their access to a permanent home.

Federal and State Action – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

In March, the federal CARES Act boosted funding for families through unemployment benefits, immediate income support, and increased funding for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). Also included were tens of millions of new funds intended to aid child welfare agencies working to tackle some of the challenges described above. These are important steps to dial down the stress on families and help them through these unprecedented times – but much more is needed.  

Unfortunately, North Carolina’s state legislature is considering harmful legislation: HB 918 “Expedite Permanency,” is supposed to move children more quickly out of the foster care system, and into permanent homes. But the bill aggressively targets parents with substance use disorders. And it will make family reunification less likely for kids in foster care, by dramatically shortening the length of time a child can be in care before parental rights are terminated permanently. Punishing parents with substance use disorders will not help kids, but it will scare parents away from seeking the help they need. North Carolina’s child welfare, justice, and health care systems are all plagued by a long history of racial bias. The upshot will be more children of color taken permanently from their birth families, when what families need is treatment and support to stay together.

[UPDATE: Governor Cooper vetoed H.B. 918 on July 2, 2020]

Instead of harmful bills like HB 918, North Carolina should double-down on the treatment, prevention, and reunification services that we know work to make kids safer and keep families together. Our state needs to make it easier for parents to get treatment for substance use – not harder. One critical way to achieve this is through expanding Medicaid in North Carolina so that more parents can get the care they need. Our 2018 issue brief, The Child Welfare Impact of the Opioid Epidemic, took a deep dive into how Medicaid expansion can help keep kids out of the child welfare system when parents are struggling with substance use. Prevention is sorely needed, especially at a time when there is a severe shortage of foster families available to care for kids.  

Please join us in speaking up for prevention and treatment. Call on NC legislators to expand Medicaid >>

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