The coronavirus pandemic has aggravated the difficult work of finding and maintaining stable homes for the United States’ more than 400,000 foster children. The mechanisms of foster care vary by state—sometimes by county—but many of the same threats loom over each location. Although specific nationwide statistics from recent months are hard to come by, interviews with experts, social workers, and foster parents paint a grim picture of a system where capacity for housing children was already strapped and turnover among placements was already high. Now many local foster-care systems are facing shortages of foster parents and outbreaks in group homes and residential facilities, making what was already an unstable situation for children even more volatile.
Ultimately, Jessica’s parents, older people at high risk for the virus living in a different state, volunteered to care for her foster son if needed. Fortunately, she never had to ask. Although Jessica and her foster son have since recovered, not all are so lucky. As states have closed and reopened, foster care has also been forced to pause and restart—and, in some cases, pause again. But a system designed to respond to emergencies can never completely pause.
Kristina’s 5-year-old foster daughter struggles with attachment and relies on a strict routine and regular therapy. The pandemic has been disastrous for her. In temper tantrums lasting more than an hour, she has shredded books, attempted to break furniture, and urinated on the floor, Kristina, who lives in Missouri, told me. Although remote therapy can be successful for adults, for a young child with a short attention span, virtual care has been useless, in Kristina’s opinion. She feels that she and her husband have been left to care for their foster daughter with little meaningful outside support.
The pandemic has destabilized the lives of many foster families like Kristina’s, while also cutting off access to in-person resources that normally would help them to cope with changes. Foster kids, many of whom live with the fear that they could be suddenly forced to change homes, might be particularly sensitive to these distressing routine shifts. “These kids don’t know what’s going to happen to them ever normally anyway,” said Kristina. “My little kids literally think that they could come home from day care, and I could have their stuff packed and they could be leaving.” In this context, no longer going to school or day care can be terrifying. Missing in-person visits with biological parents is often devastating. Getting through this without in-person support from therapists and social workers exhausts the whole family.
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Actually changing homes would be much more destabilizing. Frequent moves can lead to worse academic performance, poorer mental health, less stable attachments in relationships, and even disrupted brain development in normal times. That always-drastic change might feel much more hopeless now, when kids could feel like they’re being abandoned in the middle of a global crisis. Kristina said they’ve never considered giving up their four foster children, whom they love as a part of their family along with their three adopted children. But others have. Turnover among foster parents is alway high, and experts tell me that concerns about infection risk, especially for older people, seem to have become another reason for parents to relinquish children under their care during the past few months.