Erica Schultz, a foster care licensing specialist in Arlington Heights, Illinois, says the number of licensed foster homes in her agency has grown during the pandemic, from 37 last spring to 44 now.
Overall, though, “the whole system has become more sluggish,” says Jill Duerr Berrick, a child welfare researcher and professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “It’s made it more difficult to provide services to families ... [and] to get kids in regular contact with their families.”
Professionals also worry that, with many schools closed, maltreatment may be going undetected, because children are having less contact with professionals like teachers, who are mandatory reporters of child abuse or neglect.
But the pandemic has also sparked creative workarounds within the foster care system. In-person support programs have gone virtual, online forums to connect foster youth with each other are meeting needs, and one program secured grant funding to pay for virtual therapeutic and wellness coaching.
Community members are stepping up too. “I think people are in a giving spirit,” Ms. Schultz says. “They want to help in any way that they can and see this as an opportunity to help those in need during this really tough time during the pandemic.”
“You don’t want me.”
The words spilled out of 4-year-old Jimmy as he sat crying in an unfamiliar bedroom, his third foster home in two weeks. Earlier that week, in another house, he’d run from window to window watching his caseworker depart and shouting, “Don’t leave me!”
The first two families couldn’t keep him because the parents worked full-time and no in-person preschool was available due to pandemic-related school closures – closures the agency hadn’t heard about.
Since that time four months ago, Jimmy, whose real name isn't being used to protect his privacy, has stayed in the same foster home. His foster parent says he now jokes and plays at bedtime. Caring for him can be difficult, though. He struggles with health problems and trauma, and finding services is tough. But he also gives hugs and shares his drawings freely.
“He still has the ability to love and bond, and that’s what brings me to tears,” says his foster mother, who lives in Chicago and asked to remain anonymous to protect Jimmy.
Youth in foster care face heightened challenges during the pandemic, which poses severe tests even while revealing resilience among children and those working with them – and prompting new efforts to help. These glimmers of hope are occurring amid the backdrop of a public health crisis that is disrupting foster care placements, delaying reunification with parents, and adding health and economic stress for biological parents, foster parents, and children who are left without support systems like in-person school or therapy.
“The whole system has become more sluggish,” says Jill Duerr Berrick, a child welfare researcher and professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “It’s made it more difficult to provide services to families ... and more difficult to get kids in regular contact with their families.”
A study from Chapin Hall, an independent policy research center at the University of Chicago, estimates child maltreatment reports decreased nationwide 40%-60% in 2020 compared to the same time period in 2019. Experts don’t think that’s because abuse fell. Rather, they suspect the shift to remote learning prevented professionals like teachers, who are mandatory reporters of child abuse or neglect, from detecting maltreatment.
For children already within foster care, national trends point to delays in court hearings and family reunifications. In California, almost 4,300 fewer children left foster care between October 2019 and September 2020 compared with the same time frame a year earlier, according to the California Child Welfare Indicators Project.
Yet individuals within the foster care system point to reasons for hope. Erica Schultz, a foster care licensing specialist at Shelter Inc. in Arlington Heights, Illinois, says the number of licensed foster homes in her agency has grown during the pandemic, from 37 last spring to 44 now.
“I think people are in a giving spirit. They want to help in any way that they can and see this as an opportunity to help those in need during this really tough time during the pandemic,” she says.
In addition, the COVID-19 relief bill passed at the end of 2020 included $400 million to support older youth as they transition out of foster care. It also placed a moratorium on foster youth aging out of support services during the pandemic.
Justin Hayden, a junior at Purdue University Northwest in Hammond, Indiana, even found a benefit in the pandemic. He says the lockdowns gave him time to reflect and heal from hardships, including entering foster care after he and his mother became homeless. He’s encouraged by groups he volunteers with like FosterClub and Foster Success, which organize virtual forums for foster youth to support each other. “They give each other such great advice,” he says.
In the wake of George Floyd’s death last year and racial justice protests across the country, the foster system has come under increased scrutiny. Before the pandemic, about 424,000 children were in foster care in 2019, according to the U.S. Children’s Bureau, with Black and Indigeneous children overrepresented.
In June, Black Families Matter protesters in New York called to abolish the city’s Administration for Children’s Services, charging that the department systematically uses racist policies that are overly punitive for Black people.
But Naomi Schaefer Riley, a resident fellow focused on child welfare and foster care at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, is concerned that protests against foster care will result in less-qualified professionals entering the field, fewer people wanting to be foster parents, and less attention paid to drug abuse and mental health problems in biological families.
“If you feel like you’re joining a system that’s terrible and systemically racist, I don’t think a lot of people will jump at that chance,” she says.
In the case of Ángela Quijada-Banks, a 24-year-old living in San Diego, California, the pandemic and social justice protests motivated her to help by writing her first book, “The Black Foster Youth Handbook,” which she self-published last fall. It offers lessons for foster youth and the adults working with them.
For Ms. Quijada-Banks, entering foster care at 16 meant splitting up from her tightknit siblings, which left her mourning the loss of her big-sister role. She came close to finishing college but dropped out to help her biological father when his health failed. Ms. Quijada-Banks hopes to finish college, though she knows the odds are against her. Recent data is sparse, but earlier studies estimate that between 2% and 9% of foster youth who graduate from high school earn a bachelor’s degree.
Now married and an entrepreneur, Ms. Quijada-Banks supports reforms to the foster care system that connect children to their extended families. She says individuals like her grandmother who showed her “unconditional love,” as well as her therapist and some school teachers, helped her get through tough years in foster care. They “believed in me and spoke life into me when I didn’t feel very much alive,” she says.
Foster youth and individuals working with them have gotten creative during the pandemic.
Marcía Hopkins oversees a foster youth advocacy program at the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia. Normally, teenagers in the program gather in person to bond with each other, learn about the foster care system, and work on a group advocacy project. Last year, the program went virtual, but many of the teenagers didn’t have reliable internet or devices.
Ms. Hopkins and other staff worked to get laptops to the foster youth who needed them and received grant funding to pay for virtual therapeutic and wellness coaching. Managing emotional wellness “was a big thing that our young people identified and brought up,” she says.
Alicia Wehby, a foster parent from Crystal Lake, Illinois, organized a donation drive that provided holiday presents to more than 400 foster youth, up from 100 children the year before. The group provided contactless deliveries and used social media to coordinate requests and donations.
“We’re in the middle of a pandemic, and yet I think our support has actually gone up,” says Ms. Wehby, who, along with her husband, founded the nonprofit Second Bridge in 2019 to link foster families with community support. “I’m hopeful the momentum will keep going and ... the idea of being a foster child or having foster children in your home will not be hush, hush, but just something we have to do to help out the kids.”
Back in Chicago, Jimmy’s foster parent says she was overwhelmed by the support she received from friends and family who dropped off clothes and toys on her porch and sent food when she and her partner were diagnosed with COVID-19. Above all, she’s humbled by her foster son’s strength.
“Here I am feeling sorry for myself – we have COVID, we can’t see our parents – and here is this little boy who can still love,” after all he’s been through, she says. “He’s absolutely, hands down, the most resilient, not just kid, but person I’ve ever met.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct Ángela Quijada-Banks' location. She lives in San Diego, California.