Before the coronavirus pandemic broke out here, if Washington state took custody of a child, most parents had the right to visit. In fact, recent research reviewed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services shows that the more time children in foster care spend with their parents, the higher the child’s well-being.

But when the pandemic started, Gov. Jay Inslee issued a proclamation that allowed the Department of Children, Youth and Families to suspend in-person visitation, one of his measures attempting to slow the spread of coronavirus. Since then, statewide, only about two percent of children in foster care have had in-person visits each week and fewer than half have had virtual visits.

During this episode of Ed Lab Live, public defender Tara Urs talks about how that change has affected families statewide and dispels some misconceptions about why children are removed from their homes.

Public defender Tara Urs, who represents parents working toward reunification with their children who are in foster care, speaks about how the pandemic is affecting families and the child welfare system.

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This transcript has been lightly edited.

Q: Today we’re going to be talking a lot about visitation, and how visitation looks different. So, I would love it if you could start by talking about why visitation matters. Why is this such an important thing?

A: That’s a great question, thank you. So, I want to start by going way back in time to February of this year, when it seemed like that was a whole universe ago, but then the Federal Children’s Bureau, which is the federal agency that oversees the spending of Child Welfare money nationwide released an information memorandum.

And that’s the kind of document they released that tells you what their expectations are for Child Welfare providers statewide, or nationwide. And they issued one in February of this year on visitation, which they actually re-termed family time.

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What they did was they reviewed all of the research that has been done about family time, and the separation of children from their parents by child welfare cases. And what they found was that the more frequent and the better quality of the family time that children are able to spend while they’re out of home care, it’s associated with improved child well being, fewer behavioral problems, fewer disrupted foster placements, lower levels of depression, better adjustment to foster homes, and also a stronger relationship with our parents.

So, they were saying in February of this year, this issue, visitation, now family time, it should be our focus. And that’s what we were gearing up to really dive deep into improving into really advocating around in February of this year.

Q: Wow, and then a pandemic happened.

A: Yes. And then a pandemic, which recently changed things a fair amount.

Q: Yeah. I really want to talk about how the pandemic really affected this family time. But before we go into that, you know, oftentimes in our conversations with people around foster care, I get this block, people are like, “Well, why would you want to reunite kids with parents who have obviously hurt them?” Like, I just feel like, there’s so many misconceptions about what foster care is. So I wondered if we could delve a little bit into those, just so people who are listening understand that it’s not like you see in the movies where it’s always a dire, horrible situation.

A: It’s really not like a movie. Yes, it’s really not like the movies. And in fact, I think maybe one of the misconceptions that people have is that most cases are about abuse, whereas 80% of all cases nationwide are neglect cases, and those are allegations, and even abuse cases are often allegations stemming from poverty; from the types of problems that families have, that they are unable to resolve the types of problems that all families have; addiction, mental illness, sometimes domestic violence, are compounded by poverty.

And families are unable to resolve those issues because they lack the resources to do so. And that places children at risk. But most cases are about risk of future bad things happening to children, and not about something bad that has actually already happened to children.

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Another misconception is that most children are on track to be adopted, whereas in fact, in Washington state, 60% of all kids who are removed are eventually returned home. So these are families that are gonna get back together. And we think that number should actually be a lot higher. We would suggest that number should get a lot higher. Yeah. But only about 25% of kids in Washington state are adopted out of foster care.

Q: So then that leaves 15% that just age out?

A: So there’s a few different things that can happen to that category. Some kids can get placed in a guardianship with their relatives, or can be placed in some type of other legal arrangement with not a parent, so a relative or a family friend. And then some kids age out of foster care. And some kids have their rights, their parents terminated, and are just never adopted, and we call those children legal orphans, they have no legal family.

Q: OK, all right. And then I think the other misconception that you often hear is that kids are removed from these unseen places and put in these safe and loving foster homes. Some of which really are safe and loving foster homes. But is that always the case?

A: So, a couple things about that. One is we know that the act of removing a child is itself harmful. And that maybe was in dispute 10 years ago, but the research on that is now so solid. And so that was one of the things that the Children’s Bureau memorandum talked about in February of this year.

That just the act of removing a child from their family is traumatic, it causes “irreparable harm,” was the words that the Federal Children’s Bureau used in February of this year. So, we are doing a harm to children just by removing them.

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But then the question is, are we putting them into a better place overall? And that was your question. And I think there’s lots of reasons to believe that that’s not the case. The children are not necessarily ending up in a safe place.

And one of the issues that we have in Washington that is really at a crisis level, and has been at a crisis level even before this pandemic, is the lack of appropriate placements for youth, and then the excessive, excessive number of times that youth are moved between foster homes.

So Washington far exceeds the federal standards for moves within foster care. Children in foster care in Washington are moved in about 6.4 times out of 1,000 days, which is a really high number of moves for children. And we know that every one of those moves is traumatic for children.

And so, we’re not offering them stability when we place children into foster care. We’re offering them a lot more instability. And then we also know the foster homes themselves are not necessarily safe. And the rates of maltreatment in foster homes are high and high compared even to the general population.

Q: So, with all that in mind. And now we have kind of a better picture of what it’s really, like why kids are in foster care, what this is looking like. Let’s jump back to where we started, with visitation. What’s happening since then? Like COVID-19 — has it affected in-person visitation? What does it look like now?

A: Yes. So, I think just for comparison’s sake, I think it’s important to look a little bit before COVID, what a parent experience in visitation would be like. Before COVID, all parents whose children were removed and through the child welfare system, they had a court order. And the court order said to them, “You’re entitled to a certain number of visits with your child every week.”

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And the minimum that we see in King County is about two hours two times a week, but most of the court orders, and we advocate strongly for more visitation, more contact than that. And very often our clients negotiated, agreed to out-of-home care in exchange for a promise of a certain amount of visitation in there. And we were starting to hear rumblings in early March, a message that (Department of Children, Youth, and Family) Secretary (Ross) Hunter sent out to foster parents, or got leaked to the rest of the community, that suggested he was trying to end in-person family visitation.

But on March 26, we got a memo from (DCYF) that suspended all in-person family visitation. And then later that same day, we got a proclamation from Gov. Inslee, that actually didn’t suspend all in-person visitation.

But what it did was, it removed the mandate that the state provide the maximum visitation. So it’s like a subtle difference. But the proclamation didn’t ban visitation, but what it said was the state’s no longer obligated to do the most, which is what the statute previously had said.

Q: OK. And so when that happened, I remember talking to Secretary Hunter, and he was like, It’s happening because we need to make sure that our foster families feel safe. And we’re replacing it with all these video technologies and phone technologies. And that in some ways, these video contacts are really positive. How true is that? Like, what really ended up happening?

A: So, I have sort of three responses to that. The first is, they just released the data for last, I think last week, and fewer than 1% of families in King County are getting in-person visits now, and 61% of families are having no visits at all.

Q: No phone contact, no video?

A: No contact at all. And so, about I think 38% of families are having virtual visits according to the data that Children’s Administration just released. And so, we know that in-person visitation isn’t happening.

[NOTE: According to visitation data on the DCYF website, as of mid-May, the most recent data available, two percent of children in out-of-home care statewide had in-person visitation and 47 percent had virtual visits. The agency wrote, “As of the end of April, children are visiting their families at rates similar to what we observed prior to proclamation 20.05.”]

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And one of our clients actually wrote a letter to Gov. Inslee to try and convince him to restart in-person family visitation. And she talked about talking on the phone with her young child and her young child said to her, that she missed her so much her brain hurts. And so, it’s really heartbreaking.

We’ve heard so many heartbreaking stories from our clients about how the video contact, particularly with young children, especially children who are unable to understand why a parent is unable to visit in person, has been really harmful to children. And then included in that is visitation with infants and babies.

And sometimes children are removed from the hospital, from birth. And we know that those early moments, those early connections that parents have with their children are so critical for the child’s long-term safety and well being. And all of that has come to an end. And we’ve heard from our infant mental health specialists here in Washington, that those contacts, those sounds, touches, smells, are just critical to child development. And we’re really setting up those children for failure by not allowing them to have that important contact with their parents.

Q: The way that I understood the current concerns around in-person visitation is that, it involves so many people. And so, in this period when we’re supposed to be physically distancing ourselves and not coming into contact with as many people, you have children who are going and they’re interacting with the supervisors who are supervising visitation and these other families.

And so, it just brings so many potential contagions back into this foster family. And so, Secretary Hunter stressed that he was really concerned that they would lose foster families, and foster families wouldn’t want to take the kids back. And that was kind of the logic behind it. Do you have any reaction to that, or have you seen that that’s really been what’s been happening? Why is it such a huge concern?

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A: So, I credit him that that is truly his concern. He says if that’s his concern, and presumably, he has reason to believe that that’s likely to happen. But I think that that points to a much larger problem. Which is that, we have to now recognize that these foster caregivers are not parents. Because they’re not families. They’re not treating these children as though they are their children, because you would not, if your child became COVID exposed, kick them out of your house.

And if that’s the concern, then I think at a certain level, we have to recognize the failure of our system more broadly to provide homes for children. But then also, Secretary Hunter’s plan that banned in-person visitation, banned visitation that was being facilitated by relatives. So a child’s placed with a grandmother. And everyone else in the family can go see that grandmother and that child but the parent. Because now visitation has been banned as a result of Secretary Hunter’s actions.

Also, unsupervised visitation was banned. So even when there was no requirement for a visitation supervisor or transporter to be present, that visitation was also banned as a result of the DCYF’s interpretation of this proclamation.

So, there’s steps well beyond what was necessary to address the concerns that they raised. But even accepting that there are concerns, I think these children, children in foster care in Washington, are some of the most vulnerable children in our community.

And we now know that this thing, visitation, this contact with their parents is so critically important. There is no reason why we couldn’t take a case-by-case look at each child and family’s needs, each foster parent’s capabilities, each parent’s capabilities, and come up with a plan to allow contact that would have been safe for the family.

Individualized safety planning is required by DCYF’s current policies. So it’s not like you’re asking them to do something that exceeds what they’re capable of doing. And that individualized look would have allowed us to meet the needs of kids who are being really emotionally, severely emotionally harmed by this lack of contact.

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Q: OK. And we have a question from a woman named Joyce. She says, “I’m in New York City parent advocate, and I’d like to ask, were visits often suspended prior to COVID-19? And if so, for what reasons? Basically is COVID now highlighting a problem that was preexisting to the pandemic?”

A: Yes. COVID is highlighting a problem that has been on — So, when I said that there were these court orders that the state is supposed to provide visitation, they weren’t always being followed before. The state wasn’t always providing the total number of visits they were supposed to be providing, but we had recourse. We could file a motion in court to try and enforce the court orders to get the state to provide the visits that were supposed to be provided. And one of the real difficulties is, Washington state has contracted out the provision of visitation supervision to a group of subcontracted individuals, small businesses. And the pay for that is really low.

I don’t want to misstate the details. But historically, they’ve only paid for mileage to a place but not back from a place. And so, if they’re going to go pick up a child and the visitation person lives in Lake City. And the foster family lives in Renton and the visitation is gonna happen in Tukwila, they might not get paid for their time to travel to Renton, they would only get paid for the time from Renton to Tukwila.

And so, it’s sort of I think one of the things that’s certainly struck me, is that we were in boon times in Washington in February of this year, right? Like, we’re never gonna have more resources or more money or more support for children in foster care than we had earlier this year. And earlier this year, we were failing to provide the number of visits and we were in a placement crisis, and there weren’t enough foster homes for the children who we had removed from their families. So, it’s time to rethink what we’ve been doing.

Q: You keep bringing up the courts and court orders. Is it possible to turn to the courts in this situation to make it so that parents get to see their kids again?

A: That is a great question. So, unfortunately, when the proclamation first came down, which I said didn’t actually ban visitation, our local Superior Court had a meeting. And at that meeting, the Superior Court judge in charge of dependency cases or child welfare cases for King County said, “I’m interpreting the proclamation as a ban, and so now there’s no visits.”

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It’s not how court decisions are supposed to be made. Courts are supposed to hear from both sides before they make a decision about what the law says. And one of the things that’s really come out in this pandemic, is it’s put an enormous amount of strain on the rule of law. And we’re seeing courts act in ways that I could never have predicted or expected just a few months ago.

And unfortunately, our [state] Supreme Court has stepped in a number of times to set some ground rules, because it really was becoming the Wild West out here. A pretty lawless environment for people. For lawyers like us who are used to clear procedures and rules, and the Supreme Court has set some ground rules and they recently set a ground rule that said parents are allowed to challenge the denial of visitation in court. So, those motions are now in the pipeline, but that’s just sort of getting ramped back up.

Q: Things are beginning to change?

A: Yes. And, you know, we track DCYF’s website every day. And just to see what’s, just try and get a sense of what they’re up to, what can we expect, what’s planned. And so on Friday [May 15, 2020], their website had a three-stage step-up plan for visitation. And then this week [May 18] the step-up plan disappeared. And then recently some communications have gone out that suggests that they’re starting to put in-person visitation back in place, and they expect that the proclamation, the current proclamation won’t get extended past May 31. But I don’t think we know if it will or won’t.

[UPDATE: On DCYF’s website, the agency writes, “we are asking social workers and visit contractors to work with parents, foster parents and caregivers and children to move to in-person visits if they can be completed safely, based on the guidance.” As of mid-May, only about two percent of visits were in-person statewide.]

Q:  OK. So, it’s possible visitation is going to start again, but it’s not 100% clear.

A: It’s not 100% clear. Yes. The courts might start it in certain cases, DCYF might go back to the way things were in certain cases, the proclamation might get extended. We’ve been in this place of uncertainty, and from the perspective of a parent who’s waiting to see their child, this uncertainty has been going on for a long time.

I mean, this has been months of just not knowing, am I gonna get to see my child again, and when? And we still can’t with any certainty tell our clients, “You’re gonna get to see your chilp[-0d. You’ll see your baby again whenever.” But for parents who lost the ability to visit with babies, you know, in March, a lot has changed in the life of their baby between then and now.

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Q: Well, thank you so much for your time today. I really appreciate how much you’ve been able to elaborate on this idea or the importance of visitation and what’s happening now. Are there other things that people should know? Other things that you’d like to add?

A: Well, I could go on and on and on talking about child welfare. You never want to ask an open-ended question like that, we will be here all day! Keeping a close eye on how children are being treated right now is gonna be critical. We’re hearing reports of group homes and group facilities shutting down because children are testing positive for COVID. We know for certain that there are children who are staying in an office building in West Seattle.

Q: Wait, hold on, can we pause for just one second. Group homes are shutting down because of COVID. So where are the youth usually stay in those homes going?

A: So, I’m completely — we’re at the very beginning stages of trying to figure out what’s about to happen. Because there’s just COVID exposure is happening more and more among youth who are in these congregate care settings in Washington state. And I don’t know what’s gonna happen with all of those youth.

But I heard the metaphor yesterday: skating to the puck. There’s this idea in ice hockey where they don’t skate to where the puck is, you skate to where the puck is gonna go, because it’s something slippery, right? The puck is moving. And I do feel like we’ve we sort of been constantly skating to the puck in child welfare in this crisis and not looking to where things are likely to be in planning for the next thing that’s gonna happen.

The next thing that’s gonna happen is, in-person visitation is gonna restart. If you want parents to wear face masks, have we been using this time to provide them with face masks? Children in group homes are likely to get exposed to COVID.

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They’re living in a congregate care setting. The plan for those children can’t be to move them to an office in West Seattle. There has to be a home that you can find for children who are potentially sick to be comfortable and safe while they’re in your care. And I’m just concerned that we’re not looking one step forward, and we’re constantly reacting.

Q: I’d like to just clarify. You literally mean an office building in West Seattle, like cubicles?

A: This is a good point to clarify. So yes, actually an office building. There’s an office in West Seattle on Delridge. It’s one of DCYF’s offices, and it houses the White Center and Office of Indian Child Welfare Social Work offices, and there’s a visitation center in that office building where parents and children can go to be monitored while they’re visiting with their children.

So there’s like some two-way mirrors where people can like watch children playing with toys, so that they’re not interrupting parents and children while they’re interacting. There’s the little kitchen set up there. But it’s a room with some toys for young children to play with their parents while they’re having supervised visitation in an office building. It’s not a hotel, it’s not a home. It’s an office building.

Q: OK, how many kids? Is it known how many?

A: I want to make sure I’m being completely accurate. We hear rumors of it’s between four and six, but we know for sure that there are kids there. [DCYF confirmed that four children stayed there.]

Q: OK. So confirmed what numbers are unclear. That’s a lot to think about.

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A: It’s a lot. And, you know, I think it just underscores. We were unable to solve the problem of how to safely care for children in state care well when we had all of the resources at our disposal, and so, our options now are really limited.

Either we’re gonna completely rethink how we’re doing this, which would be my vote, or we’re just going to try and stretch fewer and fewer resources over more and more children, and we’re gonna see more and more situations like children sleeping in office buildings. And I think we need to, from my perspective as an advocate, we can’t tolerate that. We have to draw the line. And I think we will cross that line at this point.

Q: Well, thank you so much for your insights. I really appreciate it.