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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.

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