When it comes to balancing life in the middle of a pandemic, there really is no winning. Do we prioritize physical health, or emotional health? The safety of our children, or the safety of our grandparents? The life of our economy, or the lives of our people? We could go on and on and on. It seems like whenever one problem is solved, three more pop up—usually directly related to that first solution.
And nowhere does this ring more true than when we consider the lives of our children during this unique time. While there has been a lot of focus and concern regarding children returning to school and the balance of health and educational, social, and interpersonal needs, the truth is that for one particular group of children, school is just a small part of a much bigger picture. These children, particularly vulnerable and at risk during this time of crisis, are those in the foster care system.
Yes, foster care. While no demographic has been spared the changes and challenges that come from living during a global pandemic, the children and families involved in the foster care system are at particular risk during this time. Here’s why.
Children and families involved in the foster care system are especially in need of external support and love. They are children who have been removed from their biological parents, for whatever reason, and placed in a foster home. The amount of time they will stay in that foster home will vary from case to case. Some will return to their parents once those parents prove parental eligibility. Some will be adopted by their foster parents, should all reunification attempts fail. Some will move to another foster home due to any number of circumstances. Still other foster children will stay in the foster care system until adulthood.
Foster care has several crucial points of contact that have been significantly impacted by coronavirus. First, the reporting process that gets the state involved in a home where there are challenges. Second, the removal of a child and placement into a foster home. And third, the process of enabling reunification between child and parents.
The COVID-19 climate has created very specific challenges related to each of these points. Gracie Staples, in her article “Why surge in foster care placement will follow COVID-19 pandemic,” written from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, writes about these three points of contact and the specific challenges the COVID-19 pandemic has created. She writes not only about short-term changes, but also the long-term effects of these challenges, noting that they may be detrimental not only to foster children individually, but to the entire foster system as a whole.
The first major challenge relates to the issue of reporting. “With schools shuttered and mandated reporters like teachers, day care workers, coaches, and Scout leaders no longer able to monitor children’s well-being,” Staples writes, “it’s anyone’s guess how children are faring.” Staples notes that Bethany Christian Services, a global foster care agency, has seen a drastic drop in referrals from the Division of Family and Children Services in its home state of Georgia. “In normal times,” Staples reports, “Bethany receives as many as 200 referrals per day.” In the middle of the coronavirus spring outbreak in April of 2020, however, “that number [had] dropped to about half of that.” Sadly, this drop in referrals is not reflective of a drop in cases that require state involvement. This drop doesn’t mean abuse has stopped or slowed. In fact, there is a strong possibility that, due to the stressful nature of the crisis, COVID-19 has lent to a spike in cases. “Substance abuse is one of the top three reasons a child is removed from their home,” says Erica Fener Sitkoff, executive director of Voices for Georgia’s Children. Therefore, this crisis is particularly dangerous for children in foster care “because parents may turn to drugs or alcohol to relieve some of the stress and anxiety they are feeling.”
So if abuse is continuing, if not increasing, then why the lack of reported cases? It comes back to children’s lack of contact with mandated reporters. Tammy M. Reed, director of Placement & Permanency Services for the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services, is quoted by Staples saying, “Traditionally, DFCS has consistently seen a spike in reports when children return to school [and] resume face-to-face contact with their teachers, day care providers, physicians, therapists, and others.” The drop in reports of abuse that has been seen since COVID-19 forced the closures of thousands of schools is typical (similar to how when schools close normally for summer holiday), just as the expected spike of reports during reopening is typical. The COVID-19 closure is particularly problematic simply because of how long it has gone on, without clear plans for reopening anytime soon. As closures stretch on, the longer abuse or neglect can continue before being noticed or reported.
Staples quotes Erica Fener Sitkoff with Voices for Georgia’s Children as saying that young children who are not yet verbal, and children with disabilities, tend to be at greater risk of abuse. And not only are they at greater risk, but they are also less likely to initiate any kind of conversation or report of their own. “It is important that neighbors and family members provide a safety net for all children right now,” Sitkoff says, “by virtually checking in with families.”
Tammy M. Reed with the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services explained to Staples how her department is trying to combat this period of especially low reporting. “With schools closed, we anticipated a decrease in reports,” she admits, “We’re responding by proactively distributing information and resources to help families cope with the added stress caused by COVID-19, and providing tips to spot abuse. We’re also encouraging virtual connections to ensure that children are supported in this uncertain time.” However, despite these efforts from these organizations, so long as children remain in unsafe homes during COVID-19 circumstances, there are certainly instances of abuse and neglect that are continuing to go unnoticed and unreported.
A second major challenge to foster care in this climate has to do with removing a child from their home and placing them in a foster home. Simply put, there are not enough homes where these children can go, and concerns for personal health during a pandemic has only reduced that number. “Prior to COVID-19,” said George Tyndall, senior vice president of operations for Bethany Christian Services, “no communities in the country could say they had more than enough foster families … When you layer COVID-19 on top of that, the crisis becomes just that much more challenging.” Staples notes that part of this has to do with elderly and at risk foster parents being less willing to take in kids “for fear they have the virus.” So not only are there not enough foster homes in the first place, but those available are growing increasingly concerned about what children enter their home and the threats they could pose to a foster family’s health.
While Staples notes that DCFS has not yet seen a noticeable decrease in available foster homes due to COVID-19, this alone isn’t reassuring. “Even without the COVID-19 pandemic,” she writes, “the division is always in need of foster homes, especially for teens, large sibling groups, and children with special needs.” And once any kind of contact between children and mandated reporters (such as teachers and day care providers) resumes, there is going to be a massive spike of children needing placement in a foster home. The current number of foster homes is unprepared to meet that spike in need.
Cheryl Williams, assistant branch director of Bethany Christian Services Georgia, is quoted by Staples saying, “that once kids start going back to school, there will be a major increase in referrals. We’re really in a crisis now because as a state we already don’t have enough foster care homes. It will take all of us to wrap around these children and provide what they need to be safe.” There is a great need to prepare now, Staples writes, for this inevitable crisis. Bethany Christian Services Georgia is doing just that, by “urging local residents to consider becoming foster parents … by hosting virtual foster parent info sessions and training, so families can continue with the process while maintaining social distancing.” Other states should take efforts to follow suit, and ensure that foster parents are still receiving training and potential foster parents are being recruited to help meet the need for foster homes that will inevitably rise out of this pandemic.
The last challenge to foster care during COVID-19 has to do with the efforts of parents and social workers to enable reunification between children and parents. The foster care system is not only about removing children from dangerous homes, it is also about assisting parents to regain control of their lives and hopefully custody of their children. But that process requires access to certain legal procedures that have stopped to help prevent outbreak. “Courts are shutting down,” Staples writes, “leaving many children and their parents in limbo. Parents either can’t prove they are ready to get their children back or fight to keep them.” Therefore, there is not only an issue with children being removed from their homes and needing a foster home, but there is also an issue of children leaving foster homes and being unable to return home with their biological parents until legal processes can return to normal efficacy. However, with family visits being suspended, much of this reunification process is on hold, despite the needs of children and efforts of parents to reunite.
Clearly, at every stage of care, the foster care system is facing serious challenges when it comes to caring for and protecting children and families alike. All of these challenges explained above can be summed up quite simply as this: in the foster care system, during this era of pandemic, there is a surging increase of need, and a simultaneous drop in resources. That is the heart of the problem.
So what is the solution? Unfortunately, for now at least, COVID-19 is here to stay. We cannot wait for the pandemic to pass before we look to our children and strive to help them. Perhaps school will reopen, but perhaps they’ll close again. Waiting isn’t the answer, because the children’s needs are immediate. And while these foster care challenges do not have an easy solution, there are certainly things we can do to help our children now.
When it comes to reporting, we cannot guarantee when schools will reopen and children will once again be around mandated reporters. So instead of relying upon them and waiting for them, we need to take it upon ourselves to watch out for the children we know and see. Look into learning about and familiarizing yourself with signs of neglect or abuse. Make an effort to keep an eye out on all the children in your sphere of interaction—the kids who live on your street, who you regularly see on your morning walk, who live next door, who used to come over to your house, etc. Be a resource for children during this time when resources are so limited.
In addition to this, if you’ve ever considered foster care, even just as a passing thought, now is the time to look into it more seriously. There is a major need for foster care families, and that need will only grow. Your willingness to open your home to a child in need could make all the difference. Check out this guide to get started.
As George Tyndall with Bethany Christian Services stated, this whole crisis “just adds that extra layer of anxiety and isolation and fear. We’re very concerned about what might be happening and what might happen long term.” Despite this very serious reality, we cannot allow ourselves to simply wait in fear for things to change. Private and public foster organizations are working hard to navigate these challenging times, and, as Staples says, “the rest of us need to do all we can to help.” Pandemic or not, our children need us. The solution isn’t to panic, to complain, or to blame. The solution is to act.