Foster Care in the United States
For the hundreds of thousands of U.S. children in foster care on any given day – including 15,000 Pennsylvanian children—the pandemic imposes novel threats to their health and wellbeing.
By the time children enter foster care, they have experienced severe neglect, meaning their parents were consistently unable to meet their physical, emotional, and supervision needs. Some children have also experienced or witnessed physical or sexual violence and many have parents with serious drug or alcohol addictions. The totality of these experiences means that children enter foster care with significant unmet physical and mental health needs, development delays, and behavioral challenges. When the government, through the local child welfare system, takes custody of a child and places them in foster care, they assume responsibility for that child’s safety, permanency (meaning, safe reunification with family of origin or permanent placement through adoption or guardianship with another family), and wellbeing.
Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, states and localities nationwide were already struggling to meet their obligations to children in foster care, due to chronic unresolved problems with retaining a quality workforce; lack of foster and adoptive families able and willing to meet the needs of children entering foster care; and inadequate services for children and their biological parents.
In this post, I describe how the pandemic has enhanced these problems and what is being done to help.
Delays in Permanency for Children in Care
Nearly all children enter foster care with an initial permanency goal of reunification (returning to their family of origin, usually biological parents). Federal and state laws generally acknowledge that children need a stable and permanent family and that it harms children when they have to wait too long to either return home or be permanently placed with another family. Moreover, as children get older, they have fewer options for adoptive families and experience greater difficulty adjusting to new environments. Thus, biological parents typically have 12-15 months to make meaningful progress toward reunification. This typically includes attending visits with the child, completing relevant services (e.g., drug treatment, parenting classes), and creating a safe environment to which the child can return. If parents cannot meet these conditions, states are expected to file for termination of parental rights, thus making the child eligible for adoption. (Though, states frequently rely on exemptions to delay or avoid doing so.)
The pandemic has made it more difficult for parents to meet requirements for reunification in at least three ways. First, some agencies have had to delay or pause in-person parent-child visitation. Although high-level federal officials have argued that family visitation should persist during the pandemic, children in foster care have high rates of chronic health conditions and may be especially vulnerable to medical complications of COVID-19. Their foster parents, who are often older adults, may also be more vulnerable. The potential for viral spread (among different children, between children and parents, and from homes into communities) is especially problematic in foster or group homes providing care for multiple children from different families of origin.
Second, biological parents may have difficulty completing required services. In some cases, providers may have discontinued services or stopped enrolling new clients due to the pandemic. Where in-person services remain in place, reduced public transit access or personal health concerns may impose barriers. Where service providers have transitioned to telehealth, some families may lack reliable internet access or electronic devices to participate.
Lastly, parents may have difficulty demonstrating that they will be able to provide a safe and stable environment if their children returned home. The loosening of Unemployment Insurance eligibility criteria and increased benefit thresholds, in combination with one-time payments provided under the federal CARES Act, has lessened the potential impacts of the pandemic on economic insecurity. However, some parents may still be facing increased hardships that inhibit them from obtaining or retaining safe housing or being able to meet children’s basic physical needs. For parents who are also essential workers, school and child care closures in many areas create difficulties arranging for appropriate supervision.
In response, the federal government is discouraging states from filing for termination of parental rights during the pandemic, regardless of how long a child has been in foster care. The original timelines reflect a longstanding consensus that children are harmed by long periods of instability and impermanency and waiving timelines may thus impose harms. Before the pandemic, approximately half of children who exited foster care were reunified, typically within 12 months of removal. However, 20-40% of reunifications end with new instances of abuse or neglect and a return to foster care. Given expectations that the pandemic creates additional risks of child maltreatment and reduces the likelihood that law enforcement or child protective services will be notified when maltreatment occurs, reunifications may pose greater safety risks than before.
In cases where it has already been determined that reunification cannot safely occur, children are experiencing delays in adoption, as some counties have halted or delayed court hearings. When children are already living with their intended adoptive parents, a delay in formalizing the legal relationship may seem minimal. However, finalization of an adoption provides legal and social recognition of the family; for the child, this may be an important marker of belongingness and identity, and affirms the adoptive parents’ commitment to the child.
As there is no end in sight for the pandemic, it is critical that states and counties are able to make reasonable efforts to facilitate reunification on time – and to proceed with other forms of permanency when reunification cannot occur. Children’s need for a stable and permanent family does not go away during a pandemic and substantial delays – regardless of why—impose risks of harm.
Online Learning for Children in Care
Although online education is suboptimal for many children, especially young children, children in foster care are especially harmed by losses to in-person instruction. Many children enter foster care substantially academically delayed, and they are far more likely to have learning disabilities or attention problems than children who have not experienced abuse or neglect. Academic delays persist or are sometimes exacerbated when children change schools, due to enrollment delays and changes in curriculum. Changes in foster homes also carry adverse psychosocial implications that can affect children’s learning and engagement. Virtual learning may be especially challenging for children and youth with special learning needs, and children who are already academically behind may lose access to needed educational supports, such as one-on-one instruction support or tutoring.
In addition to potential loss of formal educational supports, children in foster care are too often deprived of normalcy – the everyday experiences where they develop interests and skills, as well as build friendships and meaningful connections. Although the pandemic ensures that children generally are missing out on those opportunities – many of which are provided or facilitated through schools (e.g., extracurriculars, building friendships) – the consequences may be especially pronounced for children in foster care.
Research suggests that connections with peers and adult mentors are critical for promoting successful outcomes among youth in care, particularly those aging out. Some areas are supplementing virtual school with in-person “learning hubs,” where students in foster care and other disadvantaged children can receive in-person instructional support in small groups. Other schools and parent groups are attempting to organize informal hubs for all students. These efforts to allow for safer socialization and learning, along with coordinated efforts by foster parents and schools to facilitate virtual contact between children and their peers, mentors, and teachers, may be the best option for safeguarding both public health and children’s development.
Aging Out in a Pandemic
Youth aging out of foster care (meaning they exit the system as an adult without having been reunified, adopted, or otherwise provided with a permanent and legally-recognized family) typically have limited networks on whom they can call for basic supports, such as shelter. As a result, most states have opportunities for youth to remain in foster care beyond age 18 in order to promote a successful transition to adulthood. Although a few states have stopped youth from aging out during the pandemic, and others, such as Pennsylvania, have extended aftercare services, many others have continued pre-pandemic policies.
Continued support for this population is needed to prevent homelessness and increase opportunities for youth to participate in educational and occupational training.
School closures and remote work may persist for the foreseeable future. The child welfare system must find ways to safely and efficiently move children from foster care to reunification or adoption, support youth entering adulthood, and promote educational progress for children in foster care. States and localities are leading the way in finding creative solutions, but they are likely limited by declining tax revenues and budget shortfalls created by the pandemic. The one-time additional funding allocated by federal government may not be enough to ensure children in foster care, regardless of where they live, receive the supports they need.