The pandemic’s devastating impact on foster children cut off from their families

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By Jeremy Loudenback

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the most daunting question facing the child welfare field was whether a precipitous drop in calls to child abuse hotlines across the country was masking an epidemic of abuse. With schools shut down and families under a lockdown, the fear was that child abuse cases might skyrocket.

But in January, the country’s top child welfare official declared that the dire forecast had not materialized.

“We can’t just assume because parents have to spend 24/7 with their kids, that there’s going to be more abuse,” Lynn Johnson, Department of Health and Human Services assistant secretary for children and families, told the Associated Press.

Instead of a surge of children entering foster care during the pandemic, the child welfare system often found itself struggling to help families leave the system, and handle the trauma of prolonged family separation during months of uncertainty and lockdown.

For my 2020 California Fellowship project, I looked at the way coronavirus upended legal timelines for families, threatened placement stability for foster youth and drove up caseloads in the nation’s largest child welfare system.

The most resonant theme that emerged during my reporting was the damage wrought by a failure to preserve family connections between parents and their children in foster care during the pandemic.

Ordinarily, parent-child visitations are a key part of child welfare case plans for these systems, which disproportionately involve people of color and the poor. After a child is removed from a home because of abuse or neglect, her parents must complete court-ordered services in order to reunify with their children. While that is happening, though, parents and children are supposed to maintain connections through regular visitations.

But in 2020, because of widespread public health measures aimed at reducing the spread of COVID-19, parents were unable to see their children in foster care for months at a time as the coronavirus continued its deadly rampage.

Data was a big element of my reporting, particularly in the last story of my series about a growing number of families served by child protective services in Los Angeles during the pandemic. Good ways of tracking some items, like the number of kids in care and how many youth are placed in congregate care facilities, are sometimes easily accessible at the local level. Many child welfare agencies — like those in Los Angeles County and Santa Clara County — have archived monthly fact sheets. That can often provide a good guide when checking to see how much a data point fluctuates over time.

Statewide, the California Child Welfare Indicators Project is the envy of other child welfare journalists across the country. Run by UC Berkeley, the website offers state and county data for a prodigious number of data points that can lead down many rabbit holes. You can access data on everything from how many foster youth have had recent dental and health exams to racial disproportionality in foster care and placement stability.

Research suggests that the benefits of quality visits between parents and children in foster care are two-fold. First, studies demonstrate that regular visitations are associated with helping kids maintain stronger attachment to their parents and with lower levels of behavioral health issues.

Family contact also helps promote reunifications between parents and children, the preferred goal of child welfare systems. A 1996 study from the Children and Youth Services Review found that reunification among a sample of children age 12 and younger in foster care was 10 times more likely for those children who were visited by their mothers.

Even before the pandemic, the heavily monitored visitation process was often erratic, dependent on overworked social workers to arrange, with parents often facing barriers like transportation and inflexible work schedules.

During the pandemic, technology emerged as a frequent obstacle, too. Without computers or smartphones, many parents lacked an ability to conduct even remote visits. Parents of infants and young children also struggled to share meaningful time with their children over phone calls and video chats.

During my reporting, I talked to one mother who became depressed over the fleeting moments with her 2-year-old over FaceTime, because it was challenging to hold the attention of a toddler for more than a couple minutes. The Los Angeles mom said she felt a constant fear that the connection with her daughter was eroding. The daughter she got back from foster care would be irrevocably changed.

That mother was among many who worked hard on case plans that included drug treatment, counseling and parenting classes, only to see their progress halted when the coronavirus made these services harder to complete. Often their children were left in foster care for months before courts could work out a way for children to be returned home.

Those frustrations could jeopardize life-changing work. For example, a different mother starting a residential treatment center for substance use disorder issues was cut off from her newborn son when the coronavirus hit. With the dependency court closed because of the coronavirus in March, she was unable to obtain visits with him for months. She spent those days trying to get clean, while knowing that her son was bonding with someone else in a foster home. Overdoses, relapses and mental health crises have been frequent during the pandemic, attorneys of these parents told me.

Through my reporting, I tried to share the experiences of these families, a group that was largely overlooked in reporting on the impact of COVID-19 in most mainstream news outlets. It was often difficult to find and gain the trust of these people at a time when meeting in person was mostly impossible. I learned to spend a lot more time taking time to listen to them. Child welfare cases are often complex and full of backstories that include challenging family dynamics and sometimes differing interpretations of events. It took some patience to verify their stories with attorneys, social workers and family members.

Ordinarily, dependency lawyers in places like Los Angeles deal with staggering caseloads and have precious little time to talk to the press. That can be frustrating because a lawyer can be an invaluable gatekeeper to a person’s case and court dynamics. In this unique climate, many attorneys, service providers and social workers were working from home, with more time to connect. They were also more committed to talking to the press during the pandemic, at a time when these families were under strain and facing tremendous consequences as a result of the coronavirus.

The clash between public health guidelines and child welfare practice meant that there was not always a good way to balance safety with the ability for parents to maintain family bonds in person, an issue that will have a lasting impact on thousands of children and families.

Early on, the problem was clear to federal child welfare officials Jerry Milner and David Kelly, who wrote in The Imprint in April that child welfare agencies should maintain family connections at all costs, helping them get back together “as soon as there is not a safety risk.”

“We cannot allow the coronavirus to serve as a modern-day orphan train that leads to the redistribution of other people’s children,” they said.

Even after coronavirus vaccines are distributed and families are able to gather again, that admonition is still worth hearing.

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