Methods: The sample was comprised of youth under 17 years of age who entered foster care in March 2019 through February 2021 (N = 10,511) with 6,516 youth entering in the year prior to the declaration of a COVID-19 emergency in the State in early March 2020 and 3,995 entering in the year following. Available records allowed for observation through February 2022 to determine whether each child had achieved reunification within 12 months of foster care entry. Overall 12-month reunification rates were calculated prior to and after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic along with subanalyses to identify differences in reunification rates by race, age, and county-level foster care volume.
Results: The 12-month reunification rate in the year prior to the declaration of a COVID emergency was 20.8% compared to 17.1% in the year following, a decrease of 3.7 percentage points. Notable changes in 12-month reunification rates were also observed based on age and race. The lowest overall 12-month reunification rates and the largest declines were detected among children ages 0-3. In the year prior to the pandemic, 17.8% of children ages 0-3 entering foster care achieved timely reunification, while just 13.4% were reunified within 12 months in the year following. The most substantial decline prior to and following the emergency orders in terms of race was seen among Latino/a/x youth, dropping from 24.1% to 15.3%.
Logistic regression models were also fit to assess whether counties with a high volume of cases (>200 annually) were impacted by pandemic onset. When controlling for child age and race, removal from a high volume county was associated with a 30% reduction in the odds of reunification following pandemic onset, compared to a 20% reduction prior to onset.
Conclusions and Implications: Findings indicate that reunification rates have dropped substantially following onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that young children and those identified as Latino/a/x have been disproportionately impacted. Results also suggest that structural issues such as family court capacity may have had an impact in reducing the ability of child welfare systems to achieve timely reunification.