In brief

In brief

  • The national emergency concerning the COVID-19 outbreak has compounded the complex challenges state child welfare agencies face every day.
  • Accenture shares our current thinking and specific recommendations for steps agencies can take today to serve children and families.


How to manage now

The national emergency as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak has ushered in unprecedented challenges for everyone as individuals, for the businesses we rely on and for government operations. It has brought some special and urgent challenges to state child welfare agencies – whose work, on its best days, was already an enormous undertaking with complex and persistent challenges.

The COVID-19 outbreak has made the work of child welfare even more challenging and the need for timely, decisive action even more important. In this article, Accenture shares our current thinking around resolving some of the most pressing needs:

Communication

Establish a standard platform for virtual communication

Roles and responsibilities

Be clear about changes to foster parent roles and responsibilities. Keep older youth in foster care until after the emergency ends

Resources

Focus resources on highest-priority court proceedings

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Child welfare agencies in the U.S. need to transition immediately to virtual methods of managing work. These efforts need to focus on ensuring that priority tasks – caseworker visits, parent visits, permanency decisions and court proceedings – continue to occur on the schedule each child needs.

When generating ideas for how to resolve those challenges, child welfare agencies often need to navigate strict regulatory procedures at the federal and state levels. Fortunately, in the past month we have seen federal regulators relax requirements – including modifying the Child Welfare Policy Manual to permit virtual caseworker visits.

The federal government also has provided important reminders:

  • First, states can use up to 30 percent of Chafee funds for room-and-board assistance to older youth in foster care who are eligible.
  • Second, the federal government is only reviewing each state’s adherence to its own policies. That suggests an opportunity for states to review and update their own policies and regulations.
Now is the time to revisit these expectations with legislative partners and colleagues across state agencies – and to begin focusing on four areas that demand immediate attention.

These recommendations below go beyond the child welfare system’s goal of serving the "best interest" of each child and address the "best interests" of everyone involved.

1. Establish a standard platform for virtual communication

Across the country, state child welfare agencies are migrating to virtual methods of communication. In many cases, caseworkers are working to identify their own digital tools. They may even deploy different tools for the families they support. In addition to demanding significant labor of caseworkers, this approach risks gaps in services if caseworkers fall ill and are unable to work. Their colleagues would be in the awkward position of rebuilding communication strategies for those cases from scratch.

Recommendation

It would be in the best interests of the field for each state to select a single platform as a standard tool for virtual communications. States need to identify a tool that is universally available and extremely easy to use and that supports the demands of child welfare activities.

2. Be clear about changes to foster parent roles and responsibilities

As states migrate to virtual communications, a variety of stakeholder roles will shift. There may be no more important role change than that facing foster parents. Foster parents have always been responsible for the temporary care of children in their homes. But in many states, foster parents were not involved in other case activities, such as parental visits.

With virtual tools, the only way children will be able to "visit" with their biological parents is to have foster parents facilitate the connection. Broad communication to foster and biological parents as to rules of behavior will be an important component to this change.

Recommendation

It would be in the best interests of children for states to address their policies and regulations related to a foster parent’s role as part of the permanency team. That includes the foster parent’s obligation to facilitate virtual visits when recommended by the agency.

3. Keep older youth in foster care until after the emergency ends

Every day, youth age out of foster care – many to challenging circumstances despite an agency’s effort to prepare them. The COVID-19 outbreak has created an especially perilous time for these vulnerable youth. In fact, aging out of the system could have significant consequences for their health and that of their communities.

Recommendation

It would be in the best interests of the country for states to revise regulations to include a moratorium on aging out for any child who reaches the age of majority during the national emergency. Set a timeline for emancipation to occur – for example, 60 days after the emergency ends.

4. Focus resources on highest-priority court proceedings

Most major decisions in any child welfare case require legal action and a court proceeding in the presence of legal representation and a family court judge. Hearings for major decisions – such as orders for shelter to the agency or finalizing permanency decisions – occur among regular hearings in which the status of cases is reviewed. Under normal circumstances, all of these hearings occur in person.

Recommendation

As courts shift to methods for virtual hearings, it would be in the best interests of the agency to disaggregate the total portfolio of hearings. Set aside routine reviews and focus instead on priorities – including hearings to ensure a child’s safety and those that might avoid delays in the journey toward permanency. In addition, finding alternate methods of managing status hearings – for example, by document review – would ensure that all processes move forward without significant delays.

What to do next

COVID-19 has thrown state child welfare agencies into uncharted waters. The greatest challenges are likely yet to come. By taking these four actions to address the needs of vulnerable children and families, states can be better positioned for what lies ahead.

In our next update, we will share our thinking around the next major challenge: setting national definitions for what constitutes abuse and neglect and apportioning resources based on those criteria.

Disclaimer: This document is intended for general informational purposes only and does not take into account the reader’s specific circumstances and may not reflect the most current developments. Accenture disclaims, to the fullest extent permitted by applicable law, any and all liability for the accuracy and completeness of the information in this presentation and for any acts or omissions made based on such information. Accenture does not provide legal, regulatory, audit, or tax advice. Readers are responsible for obtaining such advice from their own legal counsel or other licensed professionals. Accenture, its logo, and New Applied Now are trademarks of Accenture.

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