Sad to say but COVID-19 isn’t leaving any of us or our institutions untouched, and so today, I want to share with you the impact the virus is having on the foster care system.
With schools shuttered and mandated reporters like teachers, day care workers, coaches, and Scout leaders no longer able to monitor children’s well-being, it’s anyone’s guess how children are faring. But if history is any indication, child welfare workers say that any drop in referrals is a good indicator of what’s to come.
It won’t be pretty, said George Tyndall, senior vice president of operations for Bethany Christian Services, a global foster care agency.
“Prior to COVID-19, no communities in the country could say they had more than enough foster families,” Tyndall said. “Just a few weeks ago, communities were scrambling to find enough foster families because of the opioid epidemic. When you layer COVID-19 on top of that, the crisis becomes just that much more challenging.”
One: Courts are shutting down, leaving many children and their parents in limbo. Parents either can’t prove they are ready to get their children back or fight to keep them. Two: Family visits are being suspended indefinitely. Three: Both domestic violence and child abuse increase during disasters. And four: Fewer foster parents, typically the elderly who are more at risk of COVID-19, are willing to take in kids for fear they have the virus.
“All this just adds that extra layer of anxiety and isolation and fear,” Tyndall said. “We’re very concerned about what might be happening and what might happen long term.”
In normal times, Bethany receives as many as 200 referrals per day from the state’s Division of Family and Children Services, according to Cheryl Williams, assistant branch director of Bethany Christian Services Georgia. In the past three weeks, that number has dropped to about half of that.
Tammy M. Reed, director of Placement & Permanency Services for the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services, confirmed the drop in referrals in an email.
“With schools closed, we anticipated a decrease in reports,” Reed said. “We’re responding by proactively distributing information and resources to help families cope with the added stress caused by COVID-19 and providing tips to spot abuse. We’re also encouraging virtual connections to ensure that children are supported in this uncertain time.”
Erica Fener Sitkoff, executive director of Voices for Georgia’s Children, said young children who are not yet verbal, and children with disabilities, tend to be at greater risk.
“Substance abuse is one of the top three reasons a child is removed from their home,” said Sitkoff. “Because parents may turn to drugs or alcohol to relieve some of the stress and anxiety they are feeling, it is important that neighbors and family members provide a safety net for all children right now by virtually checking in with families.”
While DFCS has not seen a noticeable decrease in available foster homes due to the COVID-19 crisis, Reed said they are closely following Department of Public Health recommendations to screen for possible symptoms of the virus as children are placed.
But even without the COVID-19 pandemic, she said the division is always in need of foster homes, especially for teens, large sibling groups and children with special needs.
Although it’s difficult to predict, Reed told me it is very likely her department will see an increase in reports as children resume face-to-face contact with their teachers, day care providers, physicians, therapists and others.
“Traditionally, DFCS has consistently seen a spike in reports when children return to school, so we anticipate that trend will continue in the late summer and early fall,” she said.
Both Williams and Tyndall say that any increase will come with the need for more foster care homes.
They say the time is now to prepare for what’s to come.
To that end, Bethany Christian Services of Georgia is urging local residents to consider becoming foster parents. The agency is hosting virtual foster parent info sessions and training so families can continue with the process while maintaining social distancing.
Williams told me that once kids start going back to school, there will be a major increase in referrals.
“We’re really in a crisis now because as a state we already don’t have enough foster care homes,” she said. “It will take all of us to wrap around these children and provide what they need to be safe.”
That’s why Bethany is ramping up its efforts to make sure families can get through the process as quickly as possible. That’s why the rest of us need to do all we can to help.
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