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August/September 2020Vol. 21, No. 6Building the Capacity to Pivot: Planning for Future Disasters

Written by the Capacity Building Center for States

When a disaster hits, agencies must pivot from the established ways of doing things to respond effectively. The situation might be one the agency has faced before, such as a hurricane, tornado, flood, or other natural disaster, or it could be something that agency staff have never encountered, such as a new pandemic or terrorist attack. Because the need to oversee child safety and support families does not stop during times of disaster, agencies must ensure they can balance a rapid response with the need to keep everyday tasks moving forward.

In response to the recent pandemic, the nation's child welfare system has encountered enormous challenges. These range from receiving and investigating child abuse and neglect reports to continuing at-home visits and other in-person contacts with families in the face of stay-at-home orders and other limitations (Welch & Haskins, 2020). In addressing these challenges, child welfare professionals have begun to realize that preparing for a disaster means much more than planning to respond to natural phenomena (Capacity Building Center for States, 2020).

The strategies below can help agencies build additional capacity to respond to any disaster.

Integrate Disaster Planning Into Other Federal Planning Processes

Federal law requires that state child welfare agencies submit annual disaster plans, along with the Child and Family Services Plan and Annual Progress and Service Report. This provides a built-in opportunity for agency leaders and managers to integrate disaster planning with overall strategic-planning processes.

To ensure that disaster plans will be practical and inclusive, agencies can do the following:

  • Engage families and youth in plan development and disaster response
  • Collaborate with local service providers, other social service agencies, court partners, and community organizations to plan for disasters and crises
  • Prepare for maintaining continuity of operations, including those beyond child protection, such as prevention, strengthening families, and addressing needs of transition-age youth during the crisis

Coordinate a Response Before and During Disasters

Working with a team of diverse partners from the agency and community to design a disaster plan and practice the coordinated response ahead of time can help ensure the plan is comprehensive and responsive to agency and family needs during a crisis. By collaborating, participant organizations can coordinate disaster responses to minimize duplication and create community buy-in for the plan.

During a disaster response, sharing timely and credible information with all stakeholders can minimize the potential for loss of life and injury, keep individuals informed, and minimize the overall impact of the disaster event on the community (Capacity Building Center for States, 2020). When developing a communication plan, remember to detail how and when stakeholders will communicate to facilitate their work together (Capacity Building Center for States, 2019).

Do Your Research

Agencies should conduct research to identify best practices and strategies that support the goals laid out in the disaster plan. In response to the current pandemic, many organizations have published useful information on various aspects of disaster planning for child welfare, including the following:

  • Using technology to support meetings and a virtual workforce when in-person contact is limited
  • Working with the court system to put in place remote court sessions and case review meetings
  • Ensuring access to case records when offices are closed
  • Facilitating virtual visits and other supports related to remote parental visitation, mental and physical health, and youth transition services (especially as the need for such supports may increase during a disaster)
  • Continuing supervision and support for the child welfare workforce

You can begin exploring available resources on the Capacity Building Center for States' webpage, Building Capacity for Disaster Preparedness at a Child Welfare Agency, and the Child Welfare Information Gateway's COVID-19 Resources webpage.

Planning to respond to disasters is an important part of a child welfare agency's work. Doing so can better prepare child welfare agencies to serve children and families—both those who were already in contact with the agency and those who may need the agency's assistance due to the disaster (Capacity Building Center for States, 2020).


Capacity Building Center for States. (2019). Change and implementation in practice: Teaming. Washington, DC: Children's Bureau, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Capacity Building Center for States. (2020). Knowledge management research: Disaster preparedness, response, and communication planning. Washington, DC: Children's Bureau, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (317 KB)

Welch, M. & Haskins, R. (2020). What COVID-19 means for America's child welfare system. The Brookings Institution.