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A child sitting on a swing set.
A young girl at an emergency children’s shelter in Northfork, West Virginia, in 2019. Since the coronavirus outbreak, the already-strained child welfare system is under more pressure due to closed courts, delayed cases, and limited in-person visits with social workers.
Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images

America’s child welfare system was already failing. The pandemic could weaken it further.

Parents can’t see their children and social workers can’t make visits, leaving kids feeling more isolated and possibly putting them in danger.

In November, Ronechia, a 22-year-old mother in Houston, had her 3-year-old son taken by Texas Child Protective Services after an accident left them both hospitalized. Since then, she and the boy’s father have been regularly attending court hearings and parenting classes in the hope of getting their son back.

The 3-year-old was set to return to the care of his grandparent in early March — calls had been made to references, and the family had cleared out and redecorated a room for the boy, complete with a brightly colored rug and new toys. But that room still sits empty.

Because of his age and a heart condition, the child’s grandparent is at particular risk of serious complications of Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. And the parenting classes Ronechia and her boyfriend have been attending to comply with their service plan have been put on hold due to the risk of congregating in groups. For now, the decision was made by the boy’s caseworkers to keep him where he is, at a foster home he’s been staying in since November.

Last Friday, Ronechia and her boyfriend were able to visit their son, but when she asked about bringing him cupcakes for his fourth birthday this week, the caseworker said they were limiting face-to-face visits with family to curb the spread of the virus, and she’ll have to settle for a video chat with her son on his birthday.

“He doesn’t really understand, and he’s ready to come home,” Ronechia told Vox. “I’m worried because he could get sick, he gets sick easily. I text the caseworker every day to see how he’s doing — and in the midst of all this going on, he normally [would] be with me.”

Families and children involved with the child welfare system have begun to experience disruptions like Ronechia and her family’s. Courts are closing, cases are delayed, and in-person contact with social workers is severely limited. As a result, vulnerable children who are already experiencing great instability are being further destabilized.

Advocates and attorneys are worried about kids at every stage in the child welfare system. Because of the calamitous economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, people in poverty — which make up the vast majority of families involved with the child welfare system, and who may have held it together precariously before this — are suddenly unable to pay for rent, bills, or food, or find child care for their children. These are typical reasons that a state agency might get involved with a family and make a finding of neglect.

Reports of child abuse may also rise under the strain — one hospital in Fort Worth, Texas, saw six cases of child abuse, all children under 6, last week; one of the children died. The hospital said it typically sees eight cases of such abuse in a month.

There’s also the approximately 440,000 children (according to 2017 federal data) already in foster care around the country, many of whom had been moved from placement to placement before the crisis. Many of them are also currently housed with older foster parents who are at greater risk of serious complications from Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. According to the 2017 data, about 55,000 of those children are placed in institutional settings or group homes, places that are more susceptible to the spread of disease.

And, of course, foster children’s health is about more than their physical safety. All of these children have experienced trauma, and many need mental health services and are taking medications. At this time of great uncertainty, many courts around the country are severely limiting or denying physical visitations with family members, leaving an already isolated population feeling even more so.

“This is often a forgotten population — unless something horrific shows up in the news,” said Will Francis, the Texas chapter director of the National Association of Social Workers. “There are always weak points because the system itself has never had what it needs to make sure it’s strong across the board.”

As the Covid-19 crisis progresses, welfare advocates worry that those weak points may turn into dangerous gaps that could seriously endanger children and the many service providers who care for them.

The increased stress on an already failing system

In nearly every state, the foster care system is operating at or beyond capacity. It is also dealing with a lack of funding and a rapid turnover of caseworkers on the front lines who are overworked, underpaid, and often under-resourced to provide the support that kids and families in the system need.

Because the nation’s child welfare system is handled by each state individually, and counties are enacting their own policies, there’s no consensus at the moment about best practices in this time of crisis. Jerry Milner, the associate commissioner of the federal Children’s Bureau, issued guidance last week that permits caseworkers to hold their monthly face-to-face meetings virtually with children in their charge, as well as allowing extensions for states that have been required to improve their system in order to maintain federal funding.

Department of Children and Families workers in Boston with a child in tow, on February 26, 2019. To prevent further spread of the coronavirus, caseworkers aren’t permitted to hold in-person meetings, according federal guidance.
Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

“We remind states that there are no federal requirements that govern the procedures for conducting investigations of alleged child abuse and neglect,” Milner wrote in his letter. “Instead, states are required to adhere to their own protocols and timelines for contact, safety and risk assessments, and other investigation procedures.”

Those adjustments could look very different depending on where you live. Some advocates are worried about the potential for “triaging” investigations to only the most serious reports, leaving some vulnerable children at home in dangerous situations.

“Right now, all of our education systems are upset and many of our teachers are trying to provide them online,” Francis said. “Normally, if a kid wasn’t getting fed at home or was having a bad day, it was a teacher that saw them. You’re losing a huge number of eyeballs on kids.”

Another worry is that investigations will continue to ramp up while services for parents — which are required in order to get their children back — will be canceled, leaving many parents without their children for longer periods of time.

“Over 60 percent of kids in care are there because of economics — these are neglect not abuse cases, and that’s a result of persistent inequality,” said Kevin Campbell, a longtime child welfare advocate who developed Family Finding, a model for reunifying foster children with their family members. “Those families are already vulnerable, and $2,000 coming in the next three months [as some federal proposals being debated now in Congress would include] may be helpful, but it’s not going to solve problems for these people, if they’re even connected enough in the pipeline to get it.”

Dawn Post is the deputy director of A Better Childhood, a nonprofit that has brought class action lawsuits against nine states and the District of Columbia, accusing them of violating the civil rights of the children in their care — including subjecting them to abuse that’s sometimes worse than they experienced in their homes.

In a recent class action suit the nonprofit filed against Oregon, their plaintiffs include children who have been split from their siblings, shuffled to multiple homes, and left to languish in restrictive treatment centers long after they were needed because there was nowhere else to put them. She said that in states that are involved in class action lawsuits, or are already subject to federal court orders to improve their child welfare systems, the Covid-19 crisis is delaying much-needed reforms.

In fact, Mississippi — which has been repeatedly found to be out of compliance with a 2008 court order to address its unmanageable caseloads, a failure to visit children in care, and placement of children in “unqualified, unlicensed facilities” — has already filed a notice with a US district court that the state won’t be able to comply with the terms of its court-ordered agreement for the duration of the crisis.

“When you have a state that is already in crisis and they have acknowledged that they’ve been in crisis,” Post said, “things are only going to get worse.”

In the pandemic, there are court delays and rapid changes to system protocols

With courts closed or limited due to the pandemic, county judges are making sweeping rulings to apply major temporary changes. In Los Angeles County, for instance, the presiding judge of the juvenile court issued a ruling finding “in-person visitation poses an imminent health and safety risk,” temporarily suspending visitation by family members without explicitly requiring video or phone visits instead. Other counties have begun to limit — but not outright suspend — family visits, or to require virtual visits in place of face-to-face contact. Because of this, there’s been some confusion about what best practices look like in this time of crisis.

Family courts around the country have begun suspending or restricting court operations by holding only emergency hearings. This leaves a lot of pending reunifications largely on hold.

Because of statewide disaster declarations, many courts have suspended the deadlines for child welfare cases that were put in place to ensure that children have a resolution to their case in a timely fashion, either by reunification or entering into a new permanent home.

Houston is part of Harris County, the third-largest in the country. The six dedicated juvenile courts there have been whittled down to one operating courtroom that the judges alternate through, with a maximum number of people in the courtroom set at 10; county and district attorneys are videoconferencing in. “I have masking tape drawn eight feet from the bench and an X marking the spot where each party should stand,” said Judge Natalia Oakes, who presides over the 313th District Court. Oakes’s court is also responsible for juvenile offenders, which she said are the focus right now. “Priority is juveniles in detention,” Oakes said. “As for CPS, parents have their rights but since the [Texas] Supreme Court extended deadlines, that’s on hold.”

Still, Oakes stresses, “things are changing by the hour.”

Nena Villamar, the chief attorney for the Maryland Office of the Public Defender’s Parental Defense Division, said the rights of parents, which are already often sidelined, need to be stressed now amid the increasing turmoil.

“Parents are going to lose their jobs. Our clients are already poor to begin with — we only represent indigent clients. It’s going to be hard to find a job, and that’s going to impede their attempts to reunite with their children,” Villamar said. “Parents who can’t afford housing or basic necessities, there are going to be more calls to the Department of Social Services and they’re going to say, ‘Well, this is neglect so we’re going to take your kids.’ That’s how I see it playing out — I hope I’m wrong, though.”

As for restrictions on visitation, Villamar said it should be treated as an essential service — just as essential as investigations. “If they can still go out to the houses to remove children, surely they can provide visits,” Villamar said.

Villamar’s office has sent a letter to the secretary of Maryland’s Department of Human Services asking for a litany of things that could help parents reunite with their kids quicker, including dropping nonessential service requirements, fast-tracking cases close to reunification, and continuing visitations in some form throughout the crisis.

Another thing Villamar is asking: for parents to be notified if their children experience symptoms of Covid-19 or are diagnosed with the illness. As it stands now, when the state takes temporary guardianship of a child, they are not necessarily required to let parents know about illnesses or medical visits. “I’m asking them to keep parents in the loop because they’re scared, just like you and I would be if our kids were not with us,” Villamar said.

Kids are staying in unstable — and potentially unsafe — placements

Since the outbreak, A Better Childhood’s Post said she’s heard anecdotally a number of stories about older foster parents asking for children to be removed from their homes based on the risk of contracting Covid-19, especially for older foster parents, of whom there are many.

“Additionally, these foster parents didn’t sign on to have children under their feet 24/7, with schools closed and other providers that typically provide respite for them closed,” Post said. “You’re going to have a large number of foster parents and providers say, ‘This is too much for me to handle’ and asking for children to be removed from their homes.”

A foster care recruiting sign in Madison, West Virginia, on October 29, 2019. Advocates are concerned about children being removed from the homes of older foster parents, who are at risk of contracting Covid-19, and being placed in institutional settings.
Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images

For children who have already been experiencing instability, multiple moves or rapid moves in crisis are difficult to handle. Plus, there’s the question of where to put them. There’s already a shortage nationally of foster homes for kids, and many foster parents are understandably concerned about bringing new children into their home at this time, especially if they already care for other children or are elderly themselves.

Post said she’s concerned about a rise in placing children in institutional settings, like residential treatment centers, due to having nowhere else to put them.

Those facilities, because of their large populations, also pose a risk for the children in them and the staff that service them. Visitation at these placements has already begun to be restricted, further isolating children who are already isolated from their families, friends, and communities. “The concern is, with no one going in and laying on eyes, what’s happening in these places. If staff becomes sick, if children get sick and you have to isolate them — these are children who have already been marginalized,” Post said. “I’m concerned about their physical and mental health.”

Kevin Campbell of Family Finding says now is the time to search extensively for family and community members who already have existing relationships with foster children and ask them for their support. “The relatives and the people that know these kids in the community — teachers, people who care for them — are all home right now taking care of one another and taking care of kids,” Campbell said. “People are never more generous than in a crisis — there’s never been a better time to find these people who care about these kids. That can be done on the telephone.”

Still, he acknowledges that not all child welfare systems are thinking creatively in the midst of this crisis. “It tells you something about how people have a tendency to operate in a casework-as-usual system — that first families are dangerous and that foster families are safe. The truth is sometimes first families are dangerous and sometimes so is the foster care system. Neither are solutions on their own, they have to be made safe,” Campbell said. “The approach so far has been to limit the vectors and wait this thing out. But it doesn’t work that way. Kids will be bouncing. And when people get sick, they’ll be bouncing even more.”

Social workers are also at risk, and the industry could see a shortage

Children aren’t the only ones at risk during the pandemic. Social workers on the front lines are in and out of homes every day as part of their job. Some of this is shifting to virtual platforms — like monthly check-ins with children whose cases they manage — but some parts of the job, like investigating abuse or neglect, needs to happen in-person. In Los Angeles, social workers have said they’ve been conducting home visits without proper protective gear, the Chronicle of Social Change reported.

“So much of social work is predicated on building relationships, by sitting and connecting with people in person,” said Will Francis of the National Association of Social Workers. “Best practice is always to increase visits and make sure you’re getting quality facetime and being client-centered. In this case when that’s not possible, we’re seeing some real gaps in basic services — mental health, social — in a time where all the advice is about how to stop the spread.”

“When it comes to safety versus best practices, safety always wins,” Francis added.

Francis said he expects there will be turnover as a result of this pandemic — some will need to stay home with their children, and others won’t be able to handle the increase in already crushing obligations. Also, because testing centers are closed at least until mid-April, Francis said no one is currently able to take their social work licensing exams. Social work students who rely heavily on internships for their degrees are in many cases unable to work in in-person settings. “We might have a break where we don’t see new licensed social workers,” Francis said.

Another potential shortage is of foster parents themselves — something many places around the country are already experiencing, but might be made worse with elderly foster parents dropping out of the pool and new ones hesitant to take their place. “Say I was considering being a foster parent — I sit down in training sessions, child-placing agency staff comes into my home, there’s an inspection by the fire department, caseworkers come in — that’s a lot of people in your home you’re not supposed to have in your home right now,” Francis said.

And with an economic crisis looming, the magnitude of which is still unknown, nonprofit service providers and state agencies are already bracing for cuts, particularly to the kinds of services aimed at helping at-risk families keep their children at home safely.

“Many of our CPS families are single moms, families working multiple jobs, dealing with a lack of health care, mental health care, family support — all those things that create those issues for our families are under more stress right now, and that’s the danger zone. If mom has no school and afterschool program, and no bus to take the kid to get the meal — that’s one you’re just not sure what’s going to happen,” Francis said. “My worry is, does this lead to another tragedy because of what the cuts are and because we’re not taking the best care we can of the caseworkers and providers and the kids themselves?”

As for Ronechia, she’s trying to stay focused on the return of her son, but she is barely holding it together. “Me being a parent, I really feel like it’s nothing I can do about it but do what I have to do to get him back in my care,” she said. “But I feel depressed, stressed out … I feel lost about my baby.”


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