Extreme Family Stress, Extraordinary Family Investment: Lessons from a pandemic that upended the New York City child welfare system

This paper was originally published on the website of the Narrowing the Front Door of NYC’s Child Welfare System Work Group.

What would happen if New York City drew back the long arms of its child welfare system, investigating and monitoring far fewer families each year? Advocates, lawmakers and even child welfare leaders have increasingly posed that question in recent years as research and testimony have illuminated child welfare’s traumatic impact and startlingly wide reach. In NYC, child welfare investigates almost 45% of Black and Latinx NYC children over the course of their childhoods. Many allegations stem from economic hardship that could be addressed directly, without the shame, terror and trauma of child welfare involvement.

Now the COVID-19 pandemic has offered a glimmer of an answer. Even as families faced tremendous stress, all forms of child welfare intervention dropped precipitously—investigations, removals to foster care, preventive services and court supervision. Yet there is no indication that NYC children were less safe in the absence of scrutiny. Asked in June 2021 whether the pandemic affected child safety, ACS Commissioner David Hansell answered, “I’m happy to say, and relieved to say, that we haven’t seen any indication in NYC that that’s the case.”

That may be because the pandemic instigated a shift toward a very different approach to family safety and well-being—providing direct economic support and collective care to families. Child welfare was sidelined, but America’s flimsy safety net for families was temporarily patched with extraordinary financial protections and an outpouring of mutual aid and collective resistance.

As such, the pandemic may offer a blueprint for investment in vibrant, well-resourced communities that have the infrastructure necessary for child and family development, while reducing child welfare interventions that often exacerbate family stress and material deprivation, sever children’s most vital relationships and reinforce racial inequity. Lessons learned from what’s been called an ‘accidental abolition’ may point to long-term solutions for narrowing the front door of the child welfare system.

Family Stress in the Pandemic

Research shows that economic precarity predicts child welfare investigations. Specifically, as Chapin Hall has documented, hardships including food pantry use, cutting meals, inability to receive medical care for a sick family member, utility shutoffs and difficulty paying rent are predictive of investigated neglect reports. Likewise, waitlists for subsidized childcare are significantly associated with an increase in investigations.

In Spring 2020, all of these conditions were heightened in New York City, especially in Black and brown communities, as jobs, childcare and schooling evaporated. More than two-thirds of Black or Latinx households, and more than three-quarters of low-income households, lost employment income during the pandemic. An estimated 46% of Black renters with children and 55% of Latinx renters with children reported slight or no confidence in meeting their next month’s rent. One in 3 children citywide couldn’t count on having enough to eat, an increase from 1 in 5 prior to the pandemic.

In addition, families were dealing with illness, death and grief. In NYC, Black and Latinx children experienced loss at twice the rate of Asian or White children, and an estimated 4,200 New York State children lost a parent or caregiver to COVID.

At the everyday level, social support fell away as parents dealt with enormous responsibility for their children’s daily care and learning. Families were physically isolated and cooped up for months while living with fear, stress, pain and trauma.

America’s flimsy safety net for families was temporarily patched with extraordinary financial protections and an outpouring of mutual aid and collective resistance.

A Dramatic Drop in Child Welfare Intervention

Even so, the pandemic reversed years of growing investigations and court monitoring of low-income Black and brown families in NYC. Normally, child welfare is pervasive. By age 18, one-third of all NYC children experiences an ACS investigation, and that risk rises to 44% for Black children and 43% for Latinx children. While the number of children in foster care dropped by half in the past decade, record numbers of families have come under the Family Court’s jurisdiction in recent years.

[See the Data Breakdown for details and sources on all data in this section.]

Hotline Calls Dropped—and Remain Lower: In the first three months of the pandemic, hotline calls fell by 50%. Reports by medical providers and social service personnel dropped by around 40 percent, and reports by law enforcement fell by 33 percent. The biggest drop was by school personnel. These calls were down 83% April-June 2020 and 35% Sept-Nov 2020, remaining slightly below average as of Oct. 2021. It’s not surprising that this drop didn’t impact child safety; nationally, 90% of school reports are deemed unfounded. In NYC, education personnel normally call in one-quarter of all reports but those calls are the least likely to be substantiated during an investigation.

Far Fewer Families in Preventive Services: From March 2020 until today, the number of families enrolled in ACS preventive services also significantly declined in tandem with reduced investigations. Most families who access these case management and high-intensity clinical services intended to prevent removal are referred by child protective investigators, not walking in voluntarily. The existing preventive reimbursement system, which primarily funds case management, was also misaligned with family needs in the pandemic. Although ACS shifted core programs to provide greater concrete resources and many preventive providers delivered significant aid to families through private funding, a CCC survey of providers found that one-third were unable to meet increased family needs for cash and material supports, such as food or internet, under their contracts.

Reduced Court Supervision of Families: Sustained closure of the Family Court also limited ACS operations. Most child welfare hearings were suspended from March to December 2020. For months, the only hearings were petitions to remove children from home. Significantly, ACS also could not file to monitor families through “court-ordered supervision” for much of the first year of the pandemic, and court-ordered supervision fell 33% in 2020 compared to 2019. Court supervision had grown significantly in recent years, with 10,000 families under supervision in 2018, yet nearly a year passed without reliance on this option.

In sum, ACS filed 4,115 fewer cases to monitor or separate children from their families in 2020 than in 2019. Filings remain down in 2021, with filings level Jan-Oct 2021 compared to Jan-Oct 2020.

No Indication of Unreported Maltreatment: Clearly, families suffered in the pandemic. Domestic violence, homicides and overdoses rose, child mental health emergency room visits skyrocketed and people with children under 18 reported consistently higher rates of anxiety and depression than others. Yet by all available measures, children appear to have been as safe from abuse and neglect as they have normally been, despite reduced child welfare intervention.

Multiple data points could have captured unreported incidents of abuse, yet Hansell said hospital data in NYC has not shown any significant changes in emergency room usage. (Nationally, one study did show a tripling of emergency visits associated with abuse.) NYC investigators did not find any greater incidence of abuse or neglect in the cases they did investigate. There was no dramatic rebound in hotline calls when children began to return to school and society opened up more broadly. Children did die of abuse in the pandemic. However, child deaths remained consistent with past years in NYC. In short, the city hasn’t seen any indicators of “a larger bolus of undetected charges” of child abuse or neglect, Hansell told City Council.

Direct Cash Investment in Families

From the outset, the enormity of need in NYC led to a massive mobilization and unusual innovation in moving resources directly to people in need. Typically, NYC’s safety net is difficult and time-consuming to access and full of holes, increasing family stress. Food stamps do not last the month, forcing parents to borrow money or spend time accessing pantries. Daycare is inaccessible for many. Family homelessness rose from 2014 to 2019. By contrast, major policy shifts in the pandemic brought economic relief within reach.

Immediate, Convenient Food Access: As hunger skyrocketed, neighbors, mutual aid groups, food pantries and government mobilized to provide immediate relief. While accessing SNAP and pantries can be onerous and time consuming, many food distribution mechanisms were unusually convenient for families. Mutual aid networks rapidly scaled food distribution, with some also sharing PPE, diapers, school supplies and other basics. Many delivered food straight to people’s doors. Lunch foods normally provided by schools were available through EBT cards, and families also were able to use SNAP for prepared foods, which is normally not allowed. All of these innovations made food more easily accessible to families under stress.

The Census Household Pulse Survey documented the the major role of family, friends, neighbors and community programs as food sources during the pandemic. Informal supports were especially crucial to immigrant families wary of seeking government assistance.

Evictions Banned: Housing instability is a major driver of child welfare involvement, with 25% of families in NYC shelters having an open ACS case. With the eviction moratorium, more families were stable in their homes and did not endure the stress of housing court. Shelter entries dropped 40%, and rules changed in ways that reduced stress on families. That said, shelter stay increased to more than 500 days, NYCHA emergency transfers related to violence against women rose 28%, and a slight drop in domestic violence shelter use may reflect unmet safety needs.

Access to Cash Assistance: The pandemic was also a massive experiment in direct cash assistance with few strings attached. As early as April 2020, North Star Fund provided a guide to setting up a Direct Aid Fund and many nonprofits initiated or increased cash giving. For instance, Robin Hood gave $35 million in cash assistance and Chinese American Planning Council distributed $1.25 million in cash grants in spring 2020 to 1,500 families. NYC Health and Hospitals set up a partnership to provide $1,000 cash grants to more than 3,000 families, with spending suggesting that families use cash well to meet basic needs.

Major economic relief came through government unemployment benefits, the federal stimulus, the child tax credit and the excluded workers fund. State unemployment benefits were augmented by federal benefits until September 2021. The federal stimulus in Dec. 2020 and child tax credits in March 2021 brought immediate relief to families facing challenges covering housing, food and other basic costs.

Improved economic security also directly affected mental health, with rates of depression and anxiety dropping following the federal stimulus and child tax credit, according to the Census Pulse Survey, shown in these charts from the University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions.

Nationally, research by the Urban Institute and Federal Reserve found that, on average, rates of hardship actually fell between December 2019 and December 2020, including for low-income households. In NYC, financial assistance did not cut the poverty rate, but it may have kept poverty relatively stable, as this graph from Robin Hood’s Poverty Tracker shows:

Overall, the multiple forms of cash assistance in the pandemic showed impact on multiple forms of family stability, including emotional stability.

Collective Care, Healing, Resistance and Joy

Collective action and community care were also crucial to family coping in the pandemic. Research on youth development and healing justice has found that community care and collective action to address systemic oppression are key components of healing from trauma, as people feel seen, safe, affirmed, courageous and respected.

Shared Experience, Shared Care: With parenting stress and economic struggle so universal in the pandemic, parents reported talking more openly about what they were going through, sharing resources and tips, and checking in on one another. “Talking to loved ones” and meditating were the top two ways families were finding support, according to a report by Bronx Rising. Many community groups also offered spaces for mental health and peer support, shared information about parent self-care and how to support children, created lists of mental health and practical resources, and set up diaper banks, legal support, and tutorials to help one another access the child tax credit and housing assistance.

Families were also protected by having time to play and relax together, reducing stress. Many low-income families rush between shifting job schedules, childcare arrangements, pantry visits, and court and other government appointments while dealing with long public transit commutes and living far from grocery stores. Outdoor play also became more accessible when the city closed streets and, in some communities, the Fresh Air Fund set up Summer Spaces for safe outdoor play.

Collective Action to Change Society: As the pandemic’s vastly unequal health and economic impacts and George Floyd’s murder laid bare the impact of racism, systemic oppression, police violence and white supremacy, collective action through protests and consciousness-raising gatherings in many forms allowed impacted communities to demand change, bear witness, grieve collectively, build together and honor Black life. That collective action included “Black Families Matter” protests against ACS and Black Lives Matter protests organized by former foster youth to address the systemic violence of family separation. Multiple forms of collective action may have played a role in helping youth and families heal and cope with unjust conditions caused not just by the pandemic but by racism.

Sustaining What Works for Families

As the pandemic wanes, many of the investments that sustained families are ending even though hardship remains high. The city’s economic recovery has been slower than expected. Jobs in lower-paying industries, especially tourism, have not returned. Women, in particular, have not returned to work because childcare is scarce. Even so, federal unemployment benefits ended in September. NYC’s eviction moratorium may end in January 2022, and funds to cover back rent have run out. Hotline calls may also rise now that schools have reopened, particularly for children remaining home because of COVID trauma or returning to their classrooms profoundly impacted by grief, fear, stress and learning loss.

Yet NYC’s economic policy and child welfare seem poised to revert to their usual, punitive form. In June, City Council member Stephen Levin wondered if the time had come “to challenge the assumptions we’ve had for a few generations now” that a hotline call must be made at the first suspicion of child maltreatment. “Is there an over-reliance?” he asked. “Yes,” Hansell replied. So far, however, no major changes have been enacted.

It’s possible to continue the investments and approaches that appear to have kept children safe. For instance, New York State could continue to invest in family economic stability by redirecting flexible federal dollars that are now spent on child welfare services, such as TANF, Children’s Trust Funds, Title IV-B and the Social Services Block Grant. Dollars now going to investigations, judges and lawyers could be invested directly in meeting needs for food, childcare and mental health. SNAP and SSI could be increased to cover families’ real costs, and expanded section-8 or housing vouchers could keep families in their homes.

Likewise, recognizing that the drop in hotline reports, particularly from school personnel, did not impact child safety, state legislation could statutorily limit reporting and better protect families during investigations. For instance, New York state neglect statutes could be narrowed, as was done recently in Texas and Washington State, and court supervision could be limited. Some hotline reports could be replaced with “plans of safe care” similar to those required under CAPTA, turning mandated reporters into mandated responders. “Miranda”-type warnings could be required so that parents are informed of their rights. Financing of preventive services could be amended in the upcoming reauthorization to ensure that preventive dollars can be used flexibly for basic needs or for experimentation outside of child welfare, such as through waivers.

Lastly, we know family quality of life is directly tied to community conditions. Community members and leaders who mobilized to care for their neighbors can be invested in to develop public policy recommendations that reflect their deep ties and skills in meeting community needs.

Building Toward a New Vision for NYC Families

Paradoxically, a pandemic that inflicted incredible stress on families has also illuminated a concrete vision for better scaffolding family life. As NYU Law Professor Anna Arons put it: “We need not imagine, from whole cloth, how we might keep children safe in the absence of the family regulation system…We can envision this world because, for a short time in 2020, we lived it.” We can seize this moment to address injustice and build security for NYC families. The question is: Will we act on what we know?

In addition to linked sources, this paper benefited from interviews with Paulette Bazil, David Kelly, Jerry Milner, Jeanette Vega and Ruth White. Special thanks to Fordham University, the Redlich Horwitz Foundation and the Narrowing the Front Door Work Group for supporting this work.

– Reported by Keyna Franklin and Nora McCarthy