By Guest Authors Leslie Starr Heimov and Susan Abrams
While the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has brought much of the world to a halt, child welfare professionals and juvenile courts around the country have struggled to balance the critical need to function with the risks of the virus.
For the children and families whose lives are quite literally in the hands of social workers, lawyers and judges, being left without services or cut off from support systems can have a devastating and irreversible impact. The use of technology has allowed for creative solutions but, in many jurisdictions, child welfare agencies and the courts have dramatically reduced operations, reunification plans have been put on hold and family time canceled. Children and parents have been subjected to even more restrictive policies than the general public—exposing the flaws of a system that too often fails to meet the needs of the families it is meant to serve.
LIMITATIONS ON IN-PERSON FAMILY TIME
Children’s Law Center of California represents more than 33,000 children and youth under the jurisdiction of the dependency court system in Los Angeles, Sacramento and Placer Counties. Almost immediately following the issuance of a “Stay at Home” order in California, our clients were restricted from having in-person contact with their parents, siblings, relatives or other important individuals in their lives. This message written by a relative caregiver exemplifies the impact of disconnecting children in foster care from their parents at a time of extraordinary anxiety:
My daughter and my grandson are only allowed telephone and video chat which is not very helpful for a 3-year-old. This is a disastrous decision. My daughter typically comes here every day and is with my grandson until he falls asleep. He is so con- fused and hurt. We are in the final stages of reunification and now we don’t what is happening. He is having huge melt- downs because all he wants is his mommy. This has done so much psychological damage to all the parties involved.
The child welfare system varies from state-to-state and even county- to-county in some states. Limitations on family time were not exclusive to California. A polling of counsel for minors from around the country revealed that 70 percent were seeing blanket cancellations or restrictions on family time in their jurisdictions. (https://cdn.ymaws.com/www.naccchildlaw.org/resource/resmgr/webinars/covid-19_member ship_webinar_.pdf). Even as
jurisdictions moved away from blanket restrictions to require case-by-case determinations, most families still have been limited to virtual contact.
As an additional obstacle, many dependency courts closed for a period of time and then opened only for emergency hearings. Across the country, tens of thousands of hearings have been continued for anywhere from three months to as far out as 2021. Without access to the courts, there has been little remedy available for families to enforce court-ordered visitation or seek a change in placement.
Court closures also have threatened the due process rights of separated families and have delayed hearings that have an immense effect on the life of a child, such as whether families can be reunified, whether children in out-of-home care can be placed with relatives, whether the child welfare agency is providing appropriate services and support to the family, and when pending adoptions will be finalized. All of these delays also tax an already overburdened system—increasing the workload of social workers and attorneys alike.
With shelter at home orders becoming less stringent, visitation restrictions are easing, and courts are beginning to reopen. There is, however, a long way to go. In-person contact is still being restricted for too many families, the backlog of cases still jeopardizes the rights of system-involved families, and the long-term consequences of the past several months have yet to be determined.
Children have suffered trauma, and family bonding time has been compromised. In addition, without access to services and visitation, parents have been stalled in their effort to reunify. While the federal Children’s Bureau has issued strong guidance that these obstacles should not threaten family integrity (https://chronicleofsocialchange.org/child-welfare-2/family-is-a-compelling-reason/42119), many states, including California, operate under strict reunification timelines and have not made the requisite statutory changes to toll the reunification time period.
In addition to visitation restrictions and court closures, this crisis has exposed and exacerbated existing shortcomings of the child welfare system. Many children have struggled to meaningfully participate in distance learning without access to technology. Children with disabilities, who are disproportionately represented in foster care, have not being provided with appropriate accommodations to meet their educational needs. Mental health services and case management support from social workers have been greatly limited.
The pandemic has been difficult especially for transition-age youth who are soon to exit foster care. Imagine being 18, 19 or 20 years old— living in campus housing, carrying a full course load, working part time at a job on campus and relying on the WiFi in the library to access the internet for homework and to maintain connections with your younger siblings still in foster care. Now imagine in the space of one week –the dorms close, students are sent home (but you have no home to go to), the campus is shuttered and now you also have no job and no access to the internet. This is the stark reality of the pandemic for many young people who were doing everything they could to reach their goals and are now on the precipice of losing it all. A national poll found that nearly 65 percent of transition age foster youth had lost their employment, almost one-fifth were facing food insecurity and over one-fifth were facing homelessness. https://www.fosterclub.com/sites/default/files/docs/blogs/COVID%20Poll%20Results%20May%20 10%202020.pdf
Despite these challenges and hardships, this crisis has provided opportunity for innovative thinking and new supports for children and their families. Here are just a few examples from the jurisdictions where CLC provides legal representation:
- Allowing family reunification by stipulated court order to avoid undue delay. Because of visitation restrictions and court clo- sures, attorneys for the agency, parents and minors have been work- ing together to identify cases where all parties agree that a child should be returned to a parent’s custody. This has enabled families to reunify immediately, rather than wait for a court hearing.
- Making services and court hearings available online. Many families struggle to comply with their case plans because of pro- gram costs, lack of available services or transportation challenges. Caregivers, parents and children have reported that increased access to virtual services and court hearings has reduced these barriers and promoted engagement.
- Offering virtual family time to augment in-person visitation. Families generally are offered a standard visitation plan of a few hours of contact a few times per week. While virtual contact cannot supplant in-person contact, it does present the opportunity to supplement in-person family time, reduce isolation and strengthen connections between separated family members.
- Providing robust support for caregivers to promote placement stability. Because of concerns that COVID-19 would disrupt placements, California implemented a number of short-term changes for caregivers, such as allowing a higher monthly rate to care for a child with intensive needs. As the nation moves away from congregate care, these kinds of supports will be necessary to increase the availability of family placement settings.
- Extending supports for transition age youth who are not ready to exit foster care. California’s Governor Gavin Newsom issued an executive order in April that allowed youth who had reached 21 years of age—generally the maximum age of extended foster care—to continue to receive foster care benefits. This has been critical in keeping youth housed and able to meet their basic needs. As part of the 2020-21 budget process, California has taken the bold step of extending benefits for these youth through the next fiscal year.
As John F. Kennedy said, “In a crisis, be aware of the danger—but recognize the opportunity.” The pandemic has highlighted issues that have always existed in the child welfare system—long wait times, court calendars structured around the needs of judges and attorneys rather than the families, limited family bonding time, and lack of access to services and supports for children and families.
This crisis has also allowed the system to grow and change. We have the opportunity to rethink access to justice by permanently adopting the best of what we have learned since the pandemic began and abandoning entrenched practices that do not further the goals of child well-being and family integrity.
Leslie Starr Heimov is the executive director of Children’s Law Center of California (“CLC”). Since 1992, Ms. Heimov has been working to improve outcomes for children in foster care and to promote best practices in the representation of children and their families in the child welfare system.
Susan Abrams is the director of policy and training at CLC, focusing on macrolevel system change and policy reform. CLC, the largest child advocacy nonprofit nationwide, provides multidisciplinary legal representation for over 33,300 children and youth.