COVID-Era Child Welfare Financing Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World


The COVID-19 pandemic caused an unprecedented global health crisis that disrupted daily life and presented unique challenges to child welfare agencies across the United States. Child welfare agencies contended with complex decisions on how, when, and if to transition to providing remote services; how to address staffing shortages; the need for investment in personal protective equipment (PPE) for caseworkers and/or investment in remote work infrastructure; and how to address compounded difficulties in recruiting and retaining foster parents. Decisions were influenced by federal legislation that provided flexibility and resources to states to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic (see Appendix). Child welfare agencies across the country had to quickly respond to the evolving needs of both their staff and the children and families they serve by leveraging new federal funding streams and newly available flexibilities within existing streams.

While federal officials declared the public health emergency over in 2023, the pandemic response yielded important lessons and best practices related to child welfare financing that can be carried forward into nonpandemic times. The State Fiscal Year (SFY) 2020 Child Welfare Financing Survey, conducted by Child Trends with support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Casey Family Programs, provided some insight into this topic.i In particular, the survey asked states about how the pandemic had impacted child welfare agency expenditures and whether it had contributed to any new or creative uses of funding. National findings are available in the SFY 2020 Child Welfare Financing Survey report.

Methodology and Data

Inspired by the themes that emerged from states’ responses to the COVID-19 pandemic-related questions from the SFY 2020 fielding of the Child Welfare Financing Survey,1 Child Trends conducted interviews and focus groups with five states to further explore how child welfare financing was impacted by the pandemic.

Child Trends and the Annie E. Casey Foundation jointly determined which states were invited to participate in an interview or focus group. States were selected to represent (1) a diversity of responses to the COVIDrelated survey questions, (2) examples of interesting or unique strategies to overcoming pandemic-related challenges, and (3) diversity in state characteristics (i.e., geography, population size). Child Trends spoke with child welfare agency leadership and staff from Arizona, Mississippi, New Mexico, Ohio, and South Carolina. During interviews and focus groups, states were asked to update and expand upon information they shared in their responses to pandemic-related survey questions. We transcribed notes from each interview and focus group and identified lessons learned for inclusion in this brief.


State child welfare agencies can advance financing best practices in response to a crisis.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, child welfare agencies generated new strategies for coordinating available federal funding streams, each with their own requirements, reporting, and timeframes. Tasked with using newly available federal relief dollars to alleviate the urgent needs of children and families involved with the child welfare system, some child welfare agencies sought to improve how they make decisions about, and track, funding.

Improving financial infrastructure

Multiple states used the pandemic’s status quo disruption to invest in their child welfare agency’s financial infrastructure. For example, faced with new reporting and accounting requirements as a result of the influx of COVID-19 relief dollars, New Mexico determined it needed to invest in an updated accounting system. This new system will allow the state to more precisely and clearly reconcile expenditures. New Mexico also used its FMAP savings to partner with a new vendor to better track how the state makes claims for Title IVE, the largest federal funding stream for child welfare agencies. In Mississippi, the child welfare system also used the pandemic’s disruption to advance its plans to separate from its old agency (Mississippi Department of Human Services) to become a separate new agency (Mississippi Department of Child Protective Services)—something that had been in the works for nearly a decade. The pandemic and associated increased funding brought agency staff together and provided the impetus to separate from their former agency. Now, as a separate agency, the Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services has a full staff and new structures that allow them to streamline their accounting processes. In particular, they can now submit their own child welfare-specific cost allocation plans for federal funding sources that enable them to draw down additional funding to provide more opportunities for the state, agency, and children they serve.


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