Biological parents battling to regain custody of children in foster care could lose crucial bonding time and see reunification stymied as dependency courts nationwide cancel hearings and suspend face-to-face family visits over coronavirus concerns.
It’s a devastating blow for nursing mothers and parents of very young or developmentally delayed children whose communication ability is limited already. While advocates for birth and foster families alike say they understand the need for isolation, some fear the measure may cause irreparable damage.
“It’s going to have long-lasting consequences that are going to hurt children,” said Candice Brower, regional counsel for Florida’s 1st District Court of Appeals, comprising 32 counties in northern Florida and the Panhandle. “That bonding time is the thing we’re most worried about. You can’t get it back.”
The strength of a parent-child bond factors significantly into social workers’ decision about whether or not — and when — to return custody to biological families.
“Even if it's not the parents’ fault they didn’t bond (because of coronavirus-related restrictions), it will certainly affect reunification and possibly slow them down,” Brower said. “We’re hoping it won’t be used against them.”
The visitation suspensions — issued in counties across Texas, Florida, Nebraska and Maine, among others — are temporary. Some courts stipulate that in-person visits may continue if all parties agree to proceed.
Foster children can still communicate with their parents and siblings via phone or video chat, but that’s little comfort to a mother like Wendy McKee, who has grown accustomed to seeing her daughter in person almost daily.
Typically, a social worker transports McKee’s 2-year-old to her Omaha, Nebraska, apartment for several hours of supervised visitation. McKee can hug her, read her books, practice shapes and colors or watch animated series on YouTube.
When virus-prevention efforts ramped up last week, McKee was notified that her visits would switch to virtual. Still, she said she feels lucky. Her daughter’s foster parents have made an effort to continue in-person contact when possible.
“(Virtual) visitation is more like watching her play. The interaction is gone,” McKee said. When they share screen time in person, “she’s in my lap, and I can just hold her and be her mom. And you can’t do that on video.”
Struggle to stay in contact
Many foster parents aren’t able to make such concessions.
National Foster Parent Association executive director Irene Clements said her organization has been fielding calls from foster families around the country who fear exposing their households to infection.
“Let’s say one of the kids in the home is immuno-deficient in some way — they have asthma or are diabetic. A lot of kids in foster care do have extenuating health situations,” said Clements, who adopted four children from the child welfare system and fostered many more.
“Foster parents have a responsibility to all the children in their family, not just the one who happens to have a visit this week. How do you comply with that and keep everyone else safe?”
In Florida, Foster and Adoptive Parent Association president Amanda Cruce is encouraging all child welfare agencies to move to electronic visitation, but acknowledges the resulting emotional impact on parents who long to hold and hug their kids.
She advises that fellow foster parents be understanding and extra communicative: Text parents photos of their kids throughout the day. Allow FaceTime calls at more frequent intervals. Be flexible about call length.
“A lot of it is about sharing the power, not being in control,” Cruce said, noting that she’s grown closer to her foster child’s birth mother because she took time to explain the risks of continued personal contact and listened to the woman’s input.
In some parts of the country, logistical issues add further complications.
In Ohio, a large portion of foster children are from rural areas, and about 25% of the 16,000-plus children in state care are placed with relatives who often lack the resources and support afforded to traditional foster families, according to Ohio Family Care Association administrator Dot Erickson-Anderson. Those homes may not have internet access or video-enabled devices.
And some foster parents have expressed fears for their children’s future that extend beyond connectivity. More than a quarter of parents with child welfare cases were referred because of substance misuse, Erickson-Anderson said, and foster families worry the stress of the coronavirus crisis could push parents back into old habits.
Keeping hope alive
It’s too early to measure the coronavirus’ true impact on the child welfare system. The longer the limitations on human contact last, the greater the consequences will be for children and families, advocates say.
At Children’s Network of Southwest Florida, a nonprofit that contracts with the Florida Department of Children and Families to provide child welfare services in the Fort Myers area, CEO Nadereh Salim says helping parents stay positive is a priority.
“For some parents, their fragility comes from losing hope and giving up. (They think), ‘Why should I continue to stay sober?’” Salim said. “It’s important to help biological parents not lose hope. Encourage them to keep going — we’re on track, it’s not doom and gloom.”
Reuniting families is of “foremost importance,” she said, noting that her agency is looking at cases that are close to completion and making an effort to expedite the process.
Children of all ages need additional reassurance during this time, too, and that support can come not only from their birth or foster parents but from siblings.
Maria Batista entered the foster care system when she was 9, and counted on communication with her older brother to comfort her during their separation. She’s now 24 and serving as membership chair for Florida Youth SHINE, a youth-run advocacy group.
Foster care is “such a weird time, and you always feel like it’s your fault. Not seeing your siblings makes it even harder for kids,” Batista said. She hopes caregivers will “find creative ways to keep that bond and communication going because when it’s lost, it’s very hard to get that relationship back.”
The disruption in daily routines is disorienting for parents as well, said McKee, the Nebraska mother. She reflects on the little moments she once overlooked, like watching her daughter sleep.
“You don't know what you miss,” she said, “until it's gone.”