The Santa Barbara County Department of Social Services saw a slight increase in the number of children entering the foster care system during the pandemic despite reports of alleged child abuse dropping in the past year.
According to data obtained by the News-Press, the county’s Child Welfare Services had 280 entries into the foster care system in 2020, up from 263 in 2019 and 223 in 2018. In addition, the average monthly number of children in foster care was approximately 420 in 2020, up from an average of 360 in 2019 and 327 in 2018.
Amy Krueger, the deputy director for the Department of Social Services, said there are multiple reasons for these increases.
For one, court closures have delayed hearings for months at a time, extending the amount of time a child is usually kept in the foster system. Additionally, transition-age youth are temporarily eligible to remain in care past the age of 21, where before, they would have been required to leave the system.
While pandemic-induced delays are one driver of the increase in the foster care population, Ms. Krueger said the department began seeing an increase in the number of kids entering the system years before the pandemic hit.
Increased instances of the regular triggers of neglect — substance abuse, mental illness and domestic violence — led to a foster care population that has grown consistently over the last four years. These factors, when compounded with the stress of the pandemic, partially explains the population increases the department saw in 2020.
“I think, anecdotally, the reasons children are entering foster care are the same reasons they were entering before the pandemic, and the biggest reason is general neglect,” Ms. Krueger told the News-Press.
“We’re seeing families under stress, we’re seeing people (engaging in) substance abuse or people who are relapsing because of the stressful situation we’re in,” she said. “People are locked down together and under a great deal of stress, and there is more domestic violence as a result.”
Despite more children entering the foster system in 2020, the rate of alleged child abuse reporting dropped by about 12% between 2019 and 2020. In April 2020 specifically, calls to the county’s Child Abuse and Neglect hotline dropped dramatically by about 50%.
This drop in referrals, however, does not mean that instances of child neglect have gone down during the pandemic.
According to Amy Krueger, the deputy director of Adult and Children’s services in the Department of Social Services, the decrease in reports can largely be tied to children’s lack of contact with teachers and caregivers during the pandemic.
“We started receiving fewer reports of alleged child abuse and neglect when the pandemic first started and mostly when the shutdown occurred, primarily due to schools closing and children having less contact with mandated reporters,” Ms. Krueger told the News-Press. “So that was a trend that had the biggest impact in April, and in the first couple of months, then it kind of started to level out. But it’s been a trend that’s continued, and even currently we have fewer reports.”
Looking toward the fall when kids return to school, Ms. Krueger said the department is bracing for a potentially large increase in the number of abuse referrals.
With more children enrolled in the county’s foster care system, the county’s Behavioral Wellness Department has seen a 40% increase in mental health referrals between January and March 2020 to January and March of this year, according to data from BeWell.
Each child who enters the foster care system is required by state law to receive a mental health screening, and those already in the system can be evaluated multiple times if needed.
Therefore, the increase in mental health screenings can be attributed to the increasing foster care population and the mental health needs of those already in the system, according to Ms. Krueger.
Jonathan Thompson, an associate marriage and family therapist and professional clinical counselor with CALM, said the trauma associated with entering the foster care system, in addition to the isolation of the pandemic, has led more foster families to seek mental health support during the COVID-19 crisis. In his role, he’s seen an increase in the number of foster clients needing mental health support during the pandemic. (CALM is a Santa Barbara Count nonprofit dedicated to preventing and treating childhood trauma.)
“When a child is already going through (the system) they already have some trauma,” Mr. Thompson told the News-Press. “They’ve been separated from their family of origin, they’re still managing and dealing with that difference already, and then on top of that going through COVID-19 since March of 2020 in California — the isolation from peers, isolation from networks, the inability to get together and not even being able to connect with friends and peers who have gone through similar situations has increased different levels depression and anxiety.”
Fortunately, the county’s network of foster care families remained largely available to provide support throughout the pandemic, according to Ms. Krueger.
Initially, Ms. Krueger said the department was concerned that the pandemic would make it challenging to place and keep children with families. But as the foster care population increased, a number of resource families even took in more children during the pandemic.
“Our resource families were amazing,” Ms. Krueger said. “We were pleasantly surprised and really grateful for the way the resource families stepped up and took kids.”
For more information on the foster care program in Santa Barbara County, visit ourcountyourkids.org.