How the pandemic is testing the foster care system
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Arnie Eby’s wife, Donna, couldn’t join our Zoom call because she was a little busy managing a household of seven children. “She’s keeping the kids at bay outside,” he said. “You know, I’m sitting here right now looking out the window, and they’re jumping on the trampoline.”
The couple has four adopted children and three foster kids. They also have two biological daughters in their 20s, who no longer live at the family home in Hagerstown, Maryland. “It’s managing chaos from the minute you get up to the minute you go to bed,” he said.
Eby’s especially worried about the foster kids. They’re all siblings ages 5, 7 and 9. And because of the pandemic, they haven’t been able to visit their biological families, which he said is essential. “They need something that connects them to who they are and how they will make their way in the world,” Eby said. “And think about it: For the last 90 days, we are their only world.”
For months, COVID-19 has been disrupting families — and that includes foster families. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, there are more than 400,000 children in foster care in the U.S.
And it’s not just foster families and children feeling the weight of the pandemic. The whole system has ground to a halt: The courts are backed up. Social workers can’t safely enter homes to check on kids. And reports to state abuse hotlines are down, in some states as much as 50%. “The places where children are normally seen, like schools, day care settings, are not currently in operation,” said Karen Poteet at the National Foster Parent Association.
It means once the pandemic is over, a flood of children could enter foster care. And then the number could keep rising. Government data shows that after the Great Recession, the number of kids entering foster care rose for five years. And the system couldn’t handle it.
“As caseworkers were scrambling to find homes for foster kids, many children wound up sleeping in hotels or in their caseworkers’ offices,” said Sherry Lachman at Foster America.
She said part of the increase was caused by the opioid crisis. But she also attributes it to the recession. Because with financial stress, child abuse and neglect rise.
Also, to an overworked caseworker, poverty can look like neglect — even when it isn’t. “So imagine going into an apartment and seeing mold on the walls, no food in the fridge and a 10-year-old taking care of her infant sister because Mom needs to go to work and can’t access child care,” Lachman said.
Experts are already worried about having enough foster parents to take in extra kids in a post-pandemic recession. Because they need financial security to even think about becoming a foster parent.
COVID-19 Economy FAQs
Are states ready to roll out COVID-19 vaccines?
Claire Hannan, executive director of the nonprofit Association of Immunization Managers, which represents state health officials, said states have been making good progress in their preparations. And we could have several vaccines pretty soon. But states still need more funding, she said. Hannan doesn’t think a lack of additional funding would hold up distribution initially, but it could cause problems down the road. “It’s really worrisome that Congress may not pass funding or that there’s information circulating saying that states don’t need additional funding,” she said.
How is the service industry dealing with the return of coronavirus restrictions?
Without another round of something like the Paycheck Protection Program, which kept a lot of businesses afloat during the pandemic’s early stages, the outlook is bleak for places like restaurants. Some in the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, only got one week of indoor dining back before cases rose and restrictions went back into effect. Restaurant owners are revamping their business models in an effort to survive while waiting to see if they’ll be able to get more aid.
How are hospitals handling the nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases?
As the pandemic surges and more medical professionals themselves are coming down with COVID, nearly 1 in 5 hospitals in the country report having a critical shortage of staff, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services. One of the knock-on effects of staff shortages is that people who have other medical needs are being asked to wait.
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