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Looming Questions for Child Welfare, Juvenile Justice in 2021

Last week, the lights went out on a year that most people would just as soon have wiped from their memories. But there is nothing particularly special about the turn from night to morning on January 1 – America remains in a battle with an invisible enemy that has claimed nearly 350,000 lives, and unresolved issues around racism and law enforcement, as 2021 gets underway. 

The next year could prove to be less chaotic, but even more trying for the fields of child welfare, juvenile justice, and many other youth and family services. Following are a few questions on Youth Services Insider’s mind as we head into 2021. 

Sweeping Investigation

Will Supreme Court Upend Discrimination Policies?

The morning after Election Day, the high court heard oral arguments in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, a case that centered on the city’s cancellation of a contract with Catholic Charities. The faith-based provider continues to carry out some child welfare services, but was banned from conducting homestudies for foster parents because it would not consider the homes of same-sex couples. 

The stakes in the case go beyond child welfare, because the court, should it favor Fulton and Catholic Charities, could choose to shield the expression of religious beliefs from any non-discrimination clause. This would mean that no government contractor could prevent a faith-based provider from discriminating against gay couples, or an unmarried single person, by making them sign such a contract. 

The vast majority of faith-based providers who carry out child welfare services have no problem working with same-sex couples, or LGBTQ youth. Other religious groups follow faith in who they serve, but do so without taking government money. But for those organizations who do wish to discriminate in accepting clients, a ruling against Philadelphia here might force a brutal choice on child welfare agencies: not contract with faith-based providers at all, or do so knowing that there is no legal way stop them from excluding some children and families.

One attorney following the case closely tells YSI that an opinion will likely come out in early summer of 2021.

What Will the Biden Administration Prioritize?

Bluntly put, there are a lot of blue-leaning child welfare folks who hate Trump but love what they’ve seen from the U.S. Children’s Bureau during his tenure. Under the leader of Associate Commissioner Jerry Milner and his right hand, David Kelly, the office has focused on advocating for a movement upstream toward maltreatment prevention and a reduction in the use of foster care. The duo also spearheaded an expansion of federal child welfare financing to help states pay for more, and better, legal representation for both children and parents involved in child welfare cases. 

There is a push by family preservation advocates to persuade the Biden transition team to keep Milner on to continue under the new leadership at Health and Human Services (HHS), which will likely be headed by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. That is probably a longshot. But with or without Milner, will the Biden administration continue to advance the policies and initiatives from the past four years, including the relatively new Thriving Families venture done with the two Casey grant makers and Prevent Child Abuse America?

The vast majority of faith-based providers who carry out child welfare services have no problem working with same-sex couples, or LGBTQ youth.

One concept championed by Milner and company, and included in the past few presidential budgets, has been an option to take a capped allocation of federal funding for child welfare instead of Title IV-E, the entitlement program that is limited to spending on foster care prevention, foster care and adoption. This is not the first administration to promote such an idea, but it has never gotten much – or really any – buy-in from Democrats, some of whom fear a gradual slip from an entitlement alternative into an eventual elimination of the entitlement. 

Were Biden’s HHS to endorse it in a budget proposal, it might actually gain some traction with Congress. 

What Will States Cut?

When the Great Recession hit America hard in 2008, states were quickly forced to make heavy across-the-board spending cuts to reconcile huge hits to tax revenue. And that was with a sizable amount of federal aid sent to states as part of the American Recovery and Restoration Act. 

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The cuts are coming in 2021 as states begin their legislative calendars still under the burden of the pandemic. YSI heard from one nonprofit leader in California that a single county had told a group of providers that it would enter 2021 with instructions to shave $600 million from the ledger. That is just one county!

In the juvenile justice and child welfare arenas, it was the community providers that felt the brunt of those cuts during the Great Recession, more so than the brick-and-mortar options of detention, incarceration, foster or residential care. It will be interesting to see what kind of priorities exist this time around – it is only a decade later, but the momentum for greater avoidance of incarceration and family separation has grown significantly. 

Will Sequel Survive 2021?

Barrels of digital ink were spilled about problems with the treatment of children at facilities owned or operated by the company Sequel, which is based in Alabama but operates residential programs around the country. A joint investigative project between The Imprint and the San Francisco Chronicle began when California rushed to bring children back from a Michigan facility managed by Sequel where a teenager died after being restrained in the cafeteria for throwing a piece of bread. 

As we went to print with the story – which found that the state had shuttled more than 1,000 children to Sequel-run locations in other states – California ended its relationship with the company. Washington State has done the same, as has Michigan. Children’s Rights has called on Alabama to end its relationship with the company. 

Sequel was born out of another for-profit entity, Youth Services International, that sunsetted quietly after journalism outed a history of abuses in its facilities. In YSI’s humble opinion, the Sequel story could go any of three ways: it goes away, it reinvents again under a new name, or it quietly survives a bad fiscal year with the nation distracted by all things coronavirus. 

Will Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice “Lockdowns” Continue Until Mass Vaccination?

We would encourage readers to check out The Imprint Weekly Podcast interview this week with leaders at the Colorado Office of Respondent Parent Counsel, who joined to discuss how families with children in foster care are faring during the pandemic. In a nutshell: family visits are still greatly limited, especially in-person time, as are the services meant to help reunify children. In many states, youth inside juvenile facilities are also still walled off from family visits at an especially scary time to be incarcerated. 

So are these lockdowns of family time, so critical to the mental health of young people, going to proceed until we have herd immunity or something close to it? Or will systems figure out ways to safely ensure that parents have a meaningful chance at reunification, and kids have in-person contact with their parents?

One thing to watch on this front is the availability of at-home rapid antigen tests, which are nearly 100% effective in determining if a person is contagious with COVID-19 and take under 15 minutes to produce a result. The FDA only recently approved such tests for personal use – heretofore, they were considered medical devices. 

If these tests are mass-manufactured and cheaply available, it could be a game changer for facilitating safe regular contact for families.

How Will States Handle a “Need Surge” This Year?

The Imprint received many great op-eds about the nexus between coronavirus and youth services in 2020. One of the best came early on from the mind of Fred Wulczyn at Chapin Hall’s Center for State Child Welfare Data. It was published in March, before the pandemic had really taken hold in some states, but it posited an analysis about what would happen if child welfare systems faced a return to normal caseloads followed quickly by a surge in usage brought on by economic stressors.

You can read the entire column, but here is a piece of it:

“We need decision-making guidelines that workers can use to make what may well be life and death decisions. If I turn a family away because I have no services to offer them, then I do so knowing that my decision might lead to an otherwise preventable child death. Or, I have to use more foster care. Our workforce needs guidelines for making those decisions, not to mention their own first aid. We have the analytic capability to inform those guidelines, but the work has to start now before we are forced to rush our judgments.”

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The performance of child welfare systems in this next year will probably have a lot to do with what other efforts states make to hear the needs of struggling families, and mitigate the stressors of economic uncertainty in households. If these systems are asked to be the primary face of family need response, and not a downstream backstop, it could be ugly.

John Kelly
The Imprint