Fostering in a pandemic
Lockdowns and isolation challenge families in the child welfare system
AUSTIN, Texas—Stacy and Jack Higgins received their first foster placement, a 2-year-old girl and her 5-month old brother, in April 2020, just as the pandemic forced families into lockdown.
“We were really stuck in our home,” Stacy said. “It was extra challenging at first. … It was isolating; it was stressful.” She couldn’t take the two children or her three biological kids to parks or splash pads to burn off their energy. Her family had to follow specific and changing guidelines about who could be in their home and how often. When her daughter had a fever, the foster agency asked the family to isolate her in her room and considered moving the children to a new foster home.
The coronavirus pandemic changed the landscape of foster care nationwide. Fewer children entered foster care in 2020, but fewer families volunteered as foster parents, as well. Meanwhile, biological parents trying to regain custody of their children faced delays or lack of services, and agencies scrambled to adjust their processes to meet the changing needs of families.
Cheri Williams, senior vice president of domestic programs at Bethany Christian Services, said changes in child welfare policies have also contributed to the decrease in children entering foster care in recent years. Agencies and courts are working harder to keep biological families together. The 2018 Families First Prevention and Services Act provided federal funds to support struggling homes before removing a child from them. Other child welfare workers suspect abuse increased during the pandemic but went unreported as families stayed home during lockdowns.
At the same time, however, Bethany saw fewer families interested in fostering and fewer biological parents ready to reunite with their children. Williams said potential foster families feared bringing strangers home during the pandemic. Job changes and childcare stresses kept would-be foster parents from completing the licensing process, and family reunifications decreased.
“We had some kids who were planning to go home with their birth families shortly before the pandemic hit,” she said. “Then the rug was pulled out from under them.” Judges assign biological parents goals such as completing counseling or drug rehab, finding stable work, or taking parenting classes before they can regain custody of their children. The pandemic shut down or delayed many of those services, and finding stable housing, jobs, and financial help became tougher.
Meanwhile, foster families struggled. The most difficult part for the Higginses was facilitating weekly hourlong virtual visits with the children’s mother. The children were too small to enjoy a long conversation with someone on a screen, but Stacy had to make them stay and participate. One of the children became confused and started throwing tantrums, leaving Stacy to manage discipline while the birth mother watched.
Their local church encouraged them with prayer, dinners, and donations of baby supplies. One friend even completed the paperwork, background check, and fingerprinting to become a foster babysitter.
Susan Hublein is the case manager supervisor for Starry, an adoption and foster care agency in Texas. She said support from churches has been crucial for foster families. Several Starry foster families struggled with virtual visits until one church started making “visit bags” with toys, books, or other items. The birth parent received one bag and the child received the other, so they could do the same activity during the visit. Starry also worked to connect foster families with babysitters and churches that could provide meals. Case managers texted and called the families to check in and provide spiritual and emotional support, but Hublein said the best support comes from the family’s friends, often friends from church.
“The biggest thing is sometimes people are afraid to ask,” Hublein said. “A lot of times foster families are just so overwhelmed they just need someone to step in and say, ‘You know what, I’m bringing you dinner tonight.’”
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