“Shelter in place. Stay at home. Self-isolation. Quarantine. Important measures for slowing and overcoming the spread of COVID-19. But for survivors living with violence, abuse, and assault, these terms mean something else: trapped.” (NPQ, May 8, 2020, Drew Adams)
Foster care agencies are facing new challenges for children living in unsafe homes. With COVID-19, courts are shut down, family visits have been suspended, and mandated reporters with intimate knowledge of a child’s well-being such as teachers or coaches have been removed from daily life.
- Courts Are Shutting Down
With courts shutting down, many children and their parents are left in limbo. Parents either can’t prove they are ready to get their children back or fight to keep them. “We may in a few months be looking at sort of a massive social experiment,” said Josh Gupta-Kagan, a law professor and expert on kinship care at the University of South Carolina. “Can we simply keep more children in their birth families’ homes for the duration of this crisis,” he asked, “without increasing the danger to them?”
- Family Visits Are Being Suspended Indefinitely
- “It is not clear how virtual visits work at all for infants and young children who rely so much on touch and smell for bonding,” said Kathleen Creamer, managing attorney for the Community Legal Services' Family Advocacy Unit in Philadelphia.
- Some states have found novel ways of ensuring that in-person family contact continues. In New Mexico, the child welfare agency is recommending visits at parks without playground equipment, to allow for social distancing.
- In Washington, D.C., caseworkers are being advised to call, text or email families beforehand to ask them about any symptoms they have, or any recent exposure to the virus.
- Abuse Cases Increase During Disasters
- Already struggling parents are losing jobs and feeling more financially desperate than ever. They also are packed into close quarters for days on end as quarantine sets in. And with the coronavirus, they can’t call on elderly grandmothers or aunts to come help with the childcare. It’s a recipe for tension and violence.
- In normal times, her agency receives as many as 200 referrals per day from the state’s Division of Family and Children Services, according to Cheryl Williams, assistant branch director of Bethany Christian Services Georgia. In the past three weeks, that number has dropped to about half of that. Abuse is occurring without notice.
- “Although it’s difficult to predict,” Tammy Reed, director of Placement & Permanency Services for the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services said, “it is very likely my department will see an increase in reports as children resume face-to-face contact with their teachers, day care providers, physicians, therapists and others.”
- Fewer Foster Parents
- “Prior to COVID-19, no communities in the country could say they had more than enough foster families,” George Tyndall, senior vice president of operations for Bethany Christian Services said. “Just a few weeks ago, communities were scrambling to find enough foster families because of the opioid epidemic. When you layer COVID-19 on top of that, the crisis becomes just that much more challenging.”
- “While DFCS has not seen a noticeable decrease in available foster homes due to the COVID-19 crisis”, Tammy Reed said, “we are closely following Department of Public Health recommendations to screen for possible symptoms of the virus as children are placed. But even without the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said, “the division is always in need of foster homes, especially for teens, large sibling groups and children with special needs.”
- Afraid of bringing the virus into their families, some foster parents are also refusing to accept new children even if there is no indication they have the virus. Two youth advocates said they fear foster children are at risk of becoming “the new lepers.”
- "All the things that you know tend to be problems in foster care, this has amped all of it all the way up,” said Joy M. Bruce, executive director of the CASA child advocacy program in New Orleans.