Abstract: Changes in 12-Month Reunification Rates Among Foster Care Youth Following Onset of the COVID-19 Pandemic (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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Changes in 12-Month Reunification Rates Among Foster Care Youth Following Onset of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Friday, January 13, 2023
Valley of the Sun A, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Bryan Victor, PhD, Assistant Professor, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI
Ann M. Stacks, PhD, Director, Infant Mental Health Program, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI
Joseph Ryan, PhD, Professor, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor, MI
Background and Purpose: Family reunification is the primary objective for children in foster care. Federal guidelines direct child welfare systems to make all reasonable efforts to reunify children with their families and to do so in a timely manner. Achieving reunification within 12 months of foster care entry has been difficult for child welfare systems, and the ongoing COVID pandemic may have only exacerbated those challenges. While prior studies have documented the acute impact of the pandemic on child welfare practice, only now are we able to assess the longer term impact on permanency outcomes. The current study draws on administrative data in a large Midwestern state to evaluate changes in 12-month reunifications rates for children entering foster care in the year following onset of the COVID-19 pandemic compared to those entering the year prior.

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.