The pandemic has upended life as we know it for everyone – but nowhere have the impacts been felt more than on low-income Americans and communities of color. And the foster care system has been particularly vulnerable.
The Children’s Rights Organization reports that almost 690,000 children spent time in foster care in 2018; of those, one-third were children of color. Research has repeatedly shown that minority single-parent families living in lower-income neighborhoods are the most likely to be involved in the foster care system.
PARENTS AND KIDS ‘SEPARATED FOR MONTHS’
Coronavirus has hit America’s foster children and parents with kids in the system, advocates say, in ways that may have lasting impacts. In the thick of the pandemic, one of the most immediate – and extreme – impacts was on court hearings. Under the law, parents who have their child taken away by the state have the right to a hearing the next day. But in many states, family courts shut down after the pandemic broke.
Nena Villamar, the chief attorney for the Parental Defense division in the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, said many families in Maryland didn’t get a hearing for “weeks.” Even when the state allowed hearings to resume, she said, “lower-priority” cases and “less urgent” cases were pushed to the back burner as the state worked through a backlog.
“Parents were separated from their kids for months,” she said in a phone interview. Multiple studies have shown that even short stays in foster care or brief separations from parents can have lasting and traumatic impacts on kids.
VISITS IN FLUX
Another more drawn-out impact of the pandemic has been on visits between parents and kids in the system. While laws vary by state, usually parents with children in foster homes have the right to visit their children in foster care. But when lockdowns went into effect, parents across the country were separated from their children with no guidance on when or how to resume visitation.
In late March, the Administration for Children and Families, which is housed in the federal Department of Health & Human Services and oversees foster programs, sent a letter “strongly discourag[ing]” judges from issuing blanket orders banning visits between children and parents during the pandemic, and encouraged state welfare agencies to “become familiar with ways in which in-person visitation may continue to be held safely.”
However, states are still given wiggle room within federal guidance like this one to set their own standards. In Maryland, Villamar said, the government has decided that only phone and digital visits are allowed for kids in group homes; children in individual foster homes may be granted individual visits with their parents if their foster parents allow it.
Maryland is slowly encouraging in-person visitation with masks, temperature checks, and distancing guidelines in controlled environment for all foster children, Villamar says, but “there is no urgency, it seems.”
Zoom, phone, or other virtual “visits” with very young children are difficult – as anyone who’s tried to talk to young relatives on Zoom or teach a video class for elementary school students knows. “Parents are being told, well, at least you can still FaceTime,” Villamar says. “But for young kids, FaceTime is meaningless. You can’t touch them or hold them, and their attention span is short.”
What’s more, foster visits aren’t just about letting parents spend time with their kids. For parents, especially ones with younger children, it’s crucial to also get “parenting” time with their children: doing activities like making them dinner, bathing them, holding them and reading to them. It’s impossible to do full parenting activities over a Zoom call.
Villamar also said that the state mandated early on that children of divorced parents would be allowed to see each parent during the pandemic, but children in foster care were not given the same consideration.
“It made [advocates] angry,” she said. “I just don’t think that was right.”
COULD ZOOM TRANSFORM THE SYSTEM?
But other advocates say that the shift to digital may help to bring needed changes to the system.
Valerie L’Herrou is a staff attorney at the Center for Family Advocacy at the Virginia Poverty Law Center. She said in a phone interview advocates she works with have noted “surprising positives” from the sudden shift to remote meetings and hearings.
Parents who have had their children taken away by the state are often ordered to complete various steps – drug counseling, therapy, parenting classes – to regain custody. These in-person meetings and appointments can pile up, causing a huge amount of stress to a working person or someone trying to get their legs under them after an illness or stint with addiction.
L’Herrou recalled one client who was succeeding in her parenting meetings – so the state added an additional meeting each week in order to get the case closer to reunification. The parent stopped coming to meetings altogether. When L’Herrou asked her why, she explained that she’d already had to ask her boss for time off to come to the first meetings and knew that she wouldn’t be able to make the extra meetings, so she gave up.
“We put these hurdles in front of these families,” L’Herrou said. “You have to jump through his hoop and this hoop – and hey, you did so good at those that here’s a new hoop.”
But video meetings take away many of the logistics that are burdensome about these processes – you don’t need to hitch a ride for a therapy session taking place over Zoom. What’s more, L’Herrou said, advocates are reporting that parents seem more comfortable in their own home and are more engaged with the services.
“Counselors are finding when a parent is in their own home they are more relaxed, they’re able to be more vulnerable, able to be more open,” she said.