We need to ensure that no child is left isolated
As Texans have sheltered in place to slow the spread of COVID-19, we’ve all become even more dependent on digital devices to keep us connected. Many adults are working from home, while kids are logging in to attend school and video chat with friends and family.
The well-being of children in foster care is always a concern, but never more so than in the current health crisis. The goal of the child protection system is to reunify children with their parents, but on any given day there are around thirty thousand children and youth in foster care in Texas. They are living apart from their parents and families after a judge has determined that there is credible evidence of abuse and neglect.
But for many children in foster care and their families, the digital world that has become so central to our lives may be out of reach — with potential long-term adverse consequences.
Most children in foster care come from lower income households— and many of these families and youth don’t have smartphones, laptops, or wifi. These children and families are on the wrong side of the digital divide. The resulting social isolation could leave the children vulnerable to more dire outcomes and could significantly slow or impede the process of returning them home to their families. Here’s why.
Two of the primary protective factors that lead to positive outcomes for children in foster care are connection to their families of origin and support from adults who care about them.
However, most in-person visits between parents and their children in foster care have been halted. This loss of contact with their parent(s) can be an additional trauma for already traumatized children, but a video chat can provide some level of comfort and reassurance. Unfortunately, even if the child is in a foster home with screens and accessible wifi, their parents may not have access to these resources.
CASA advocacy (Court Appointed Special Advocates) for foster children has gone virtual, with volunteers using video chats and phone calls to support ensure children’s well-being, instead of visiting where they live.
Most visits to residential treatment centers, group homes and juvenile detention facilities are currently not allowed, meaning that the only contact the residents can have with family, CASA volunteers or other adult supports is through a video screen. Some facilities are scheduling virtual visits for hundreds of kids on a handful of devices.
The end result is that, at a time when children in foster care are feeling just as scared and anxious about the pandemic as the rest of us, they may be cut off from their parents and other adults who are important in their lives.
Even worse, there is a risk that parents could lose their children who are in foster care permanently because they cannot participate virtually in court-ordered services like drug treatment or counseling. We need to ensure that that parents don’t unwittingly lose parental rights based on poverty or lack of access to technology.
There are solutions being explored for this problem by other states. For example, California recently established a pilot program to provide free smartphones, unlimited calling, and a wifi hotspot to over 30,000 current and former foster youth ages 13 to 26. In addition, the federal government made federal funds available for the purchase of cell phones and plans for families in the foster care system. This is a positive move that should continue even when the coronavirus is no longer a crisis.
CASA of Liberty and Chambers County, which serves Baytown and the region, has taken leadership by ensuring that each youth they serve has a reliable communications plan with their advocate, and has provided many youth with computers. Texas needs a coordinated effort to get all families and youth in the child welfare system access to technology, so they can participate in our legal system, maintain emotional bonds, and utilize vital services.
The pandemic has demonstrated how reliant we all are on devices and wifi to participate in society. We must bridge the digital divide throughout the state so those most vulnerable in our community aren’t left stranded.
Vicki Spriggs is the chief executive officer of Texas CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), a nonprofit dedicated to improving the child protection system through legislation and other positive public policy changes.