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December/January 2022Vol. 22, No. 11Challenges and Opportunities for Child Welfare Agencies to Enhance Future Operations During the Pand

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenging time for many families, particularly those involved with child welfare. Underreporting of child abuse and neglect, health risks to child welfare staff and families, delays in court hearings, service disruption, and economic impacts have been primary concerns during this unprecedented time. For this reason, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) conducted a study to assess the challenges child welfare agencies reported as a result of the pandemic; what these agencies are doing to mitigate these challenges, including the use of federal funds and other supports; and the practices agencies have implemented that may continue beyond the pandemic.

For the study, GAO conducted interviews with officials from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS); 5 state and 10 local child welfare agencies in California, Florida, Illinois, New York, and Texas; and 8 national organizations with child welfare expertise. In addition to the interviews, GAO also reviewed federal laws, regulations, and guidance; analyzed reports submitted by states to HHS regarding their plans for utilizing CARES Act funds; and conducted a survey of child welfare administrators from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands between December 2020 and February 2021.

The following are examples of findings from these efforts:

  • Officials interviewed from California, Florida, Illinois, New York, and Texas reported the following concerns: underreported child abuse and neglect due to children having less contact with mandated reporters; initial challenges accessing technology (e.g., the internet) for meetings, hearings, and family time; accessing the appropriate personal protective equipment to reduce health risks for child welfare personnel and families; and delays in child welfare hearings due to court closures, which can affect reunification goals.
  • Child welfare agencies in 35 of 53 states increased assistance to families by providing help with necessities, such as food, diapers, and formula.
  • Most agencies implemented various forms of virtual services to facilitate visits for children in foster care with their birth families, court hearings, and health services. 
  • Agencies in all states reported that they may continue providing virtual services, strengthening stakeholder partnerships, and updating disaster plans after the pandemic ends.
To learn more about what U.S. child welfare agencies are doing to mitigate the challenges of the pandemic to ensure the continued well-being of the families they serve, read the report, Child Welfare: Pandemic Posed Challenges, but Also Created Opportunities for Agencies to Enhance Future Operations.