COVID prolonged foster care stays for thousands
SEATTLE — Leroy Pascubillo missed his daughter’s first step, her first word and countless other precious milestones. After being born addicted to heroin, she had been placed with a foster family, and he anxiously counted the days between their visits as he tried to regain custody. But because of the pandemic, the visits dwindled and went virtual, and all he could do was watch his daughter — too young to engage via computer — try to crawl through the screen.
They are among thousands of families across the country whose reunifications have been snarled in the foster care system as courts delayed cases, went virtual or temporarily shut down, according to an Associated Press analysis of child welfare data from 34 states.
The decrease in children leaving foster care means families are lingering longer in a system intended to be temporary, as critical services were shuttered or limited. Vulnerable families are suffering long-term and perhaps irreversible damage, experts say, which could leave parents with weakened bonds with their children.
The AP’s analysis found at least 8,700 fewer reunifications during the early months of the pandemic compared with the March-to-December period the year before — a decrease of 16%. Adoptions, too, dropped — by 23%, according to the analysis. Overall, at least 22,600 fewer children left foster care compared with 2019.
“Everybody needed extra help, and nobody was getting extra help,” said Shawn Powell, a Parents for Parents advocacy program coordinator in King County, Washington.
For months, King County, like many parts of the country, suspended nearly all hearings except emergency orders, which led to prioritizing child removals — sparked by child welfare reports or other red flags — over family reunifications. Adoptions slowed to a trickle. Services needed for reunification — psychiatric evaluations, random drug testing, group therapy, mental health counseling, housing assistance, and the public transportation to access these services — also were limited.
For foster care children, even doctor’s appointments must be approved by a judge, and frustrated lawyers say matters as routine as that were affected.
During the period examined in AP’s analysis, the total foster care population dropped 2% overall — likely a result of the significant decrease in child abuse and neglect reports, where the process to remove a child from a home typically begins.
National data show that the average stay in foster care is about 20 months, which means the children most affected during the early months of the pandemic were those in the foster care system long before the pandemic.
Those in foster care are disproportionately children of color and from poor families, national data also show. Those groups tend to have more contact with social service agencies that are mandated to report potential abuse and neglect, which means the pandemic has amplified not just the challenges of poor parenting but of parenting while poor.
“The systemic problems around racism and poverty in COVID and how people are treated in the child welfare system may be compounding,” said Sharon Vandivere of the national think tank group Child Trends, who noted that longer stays in foster care are inherently traumatic and make reunifications less likely. “It was bad before, and it’s probably made it even worse.”
For D.Y., a Black teenager living at a Seattle-area group home, the pandemic has magnified the loneliness and isolation of being in the care of child protective services. He’s been out of his mother’s custody since 2016, after an abuse report found she physically disciplined her children.