The coronavirus pandemic’s merciless march has ensnared a group that already suffers too much: children in foster care.
Children in foster care are some of the most vulnerable people in our society. They experience the same coronavirus anxiety and fear as everyone else, but for them, it’s coupled with being separated from their families.
S. Annie Chung is a Seattle lawyer who works on behalf of children in foster care and their parents. She knows how serious coronavirus is and knows extreme precautions need to be taken. But she said some of the solutions could do more harm than good.
With the governor’s stay-home order in effect, families with children in foster care are finding their in-person “family time,” or visitation time, abruptly moved to video. While a March 26 proclamation by the governor does not expressly prohibit in-person visits, a King County judge decided it did and “would not entertain any motions” to the contrary, effectively barring them for parents and children in the county. Other counties and states are reportedly taking similar actions.
Family reunification is the first and primary goal of foster care, Chung said, and this blanket ban in King County goes too far. Under the circumstances, video visits might be sufficient for most people, she said, but it’s not appropriate for the rest if there is a safe way for them to visit in person — perhaps by self-isolating in advance, or through other means.
Family time is considered so critical the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Children’s Bureau (CB) issued guidance March 27, stating “CB strongly discourages the issuance of blanket orders that are not specific to each child and family that suspend family time; doing so is contrary to the well-being and best interest of children, may contribute to additional child trauma, and may impede the likelihood of reunification.”
There are about 430,000 children in foster care in the United States, with the majority in a nonrelative foster home.
It’s tempting to believe parents with kids in out-of-home care are just bad people who deserve to have their children taken away, but the truth is a lot more complicated.
While people might imagine most children are removed due to abuse, the reality is that neglect — often stemming from the many stresses of poverty — is a reason for removal of children in 62% of cases, according to data from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS). In 2017, Black and Native American children were respectively two and three times more likely to be placed in out-of-home care than white children. Of the 9,500 Washington children in out-of-home care, 42% who are transitioning out will be incarcerated by age 17.
“A vast majority … of the families that are in the dependency system are actually struggling with the effects of poverty and structural racism,” Chung said. “These families are struggling, but they’re not bad parents. They don’t have less love or less of a bond with their children.”
The mental toll on children in foster care is huge. Up to 80% of children in foster care have significant mental-health issues, compared with about 20% of the general population, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Child removal and entry into foster care “evokes emotional and psychological trauma,” a 2019 paper by the University of Michigan Law School said.
Seattle’s Jamila Coleman has firsthand experience of transitioning into foster care. When her father went to prison in the early 1990s, Coleman lost her primary caregiver and found herself in a foster home in Seattle. While her foster home was supportive and loving, she still struggled at first, rebelling and acting out. Her foster mom, Grace Robinson, never wavered in her commitment to Coleman. Today, Coleman is the executive director of You Grow Girl!, a nonprofit that initially started in 2002 to support girls in the foster-care system. The agency now provides behavioral health and other supports to self-identified girls and has seen demand for mental-health services skyrocket recently.
The deck is stacked against struggling parents, Coleman said. “So if a parent doesn’t have access to food, then yes, the child will not have healthy meals. And if they don’t have access to water or laundry services, their child’s going to come to school with dirty clothes,” she said. “But we also live in a society that is designed to really tear our underrepresented, under-resourced families apart.”
Coleman said as soon as a parent shows a weakness by asking for help, they risk being seen as neglectful and being reported.
She believes tax dollars spent on family time, court hearings and the other apparatus of out-of-home care would be better spent on ensuring families had their basic needs met to begin with so they can avoid the child-welfare system altogether.
I agree. Poverty should not be punished with the lasting psychological and emotional damage of family separation. In the meantime, a one-size-fits-all visitation policy will not work. Social workers need to have discretion to make decisions in the best interests of the child and the family, even during extraordinary times like these.