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Pandemic Wears on Foster Children and Parents

Child's hand on adult's
As with most families, the stress and seclusion of the pandemic is wearing on foster children and parents, with some restrictions creating potentially traumatic experiences. (Photo: Juan Pablo Serrano Arenas)

*Clara Haizlett reported this story

At the start of the pandemic, it was uncertain how the foster care system would be affected, but the impact is becoming more evident as the year comes to a close. 

The Virginia Department of Social Services estimates there are currently over 5,000 children in the state’s foster care system and over 6,500 approved foster and adoptive families. This year, the agency saw the number of adoptions grow to the second highest on record since 2016. 

Adalay Wilson, vice president of programs at United Methodist Family Services, a local nonprofit that works with foster children, says that’s largely because of the work done in the previous year to support growing families. And despite this year’s challenges, a VDSS spokesperson said in an email, “there has been little impact of court shutdowns on the foster/adoption process.” 

Wilson says foster care recruitment at UMFS has remained relatively stable, and they’ve actually seen an uptick in interest from prospective foster parents. 

“We think that's because they were a captured audience. They were sitting home. They were on their computers all day,” she said. “Now they had the opportunity and the time to do a little bit more research.” 

But Nancy Toscano, the chief operating officer at UMFS, says although it seems like it’s “business as usual,” the pandemic has presented challenges for both foster parents and children. 

“For the parents, they're under the same kind of stress that we all are as well,”  Toscano said. “And then starting a new family with a child who may have experienced trauma, abuse, neglect -- the needs have grown.” 

According to the VDSS, the use of virtual platforms to train and support foster families has increased throughout the pandemic. Locally approved foster families have free access to Foster Parent College, which provides online courses and training for foster, adoptive, and kinship parents.  

Toscano says there’s also been an increase in the mental health needs of foster children. 

“Even with our own kids, this has been a challenge these last several months,” she said. “So add the pandemic, add the fact that these kids are in foster care, the fact that they're in remote learning, the fact that, you know, they've experienced trauma and so much more isolation.” 

Since UMFS is a private organization, Toscano says they’re able to give intensive attention to each child to support mental health needs. When needed, clinical support is provided by UMFS clinicians or the child may be referred to a trusted psychiatrist and or psychotherapist partner.   

According to VDSS, all children and youth in foster care have access to community mental health resources and services, which are covered by Medicaid. VDSS also works with local departments of social services to respond to shifting needs.

Another challenge facing foster children: social distancing guidelines interrupted family visitations. At the start of the pandemic, many children were only allowed to visit their biological parents virtually. 

Allison Gilbreath, the Policy and Programs director at the advocacy group Voices for Virginia’s Children, says it was especially hard on young children, who didn’t understand why they couldn’t physically see their biological parents.

“When you think about a toddler talking on Zoom, it's not the same as the interaction between when they're meeting in person,” Gilbreath said. 

While many local agencies have since returned to in-person visits, Gilbreath says the effects of isolation are still there.  

“We sometimes don't think that with children that young that trauma can impact their brains, but it absolutely can,” she added. 

Gilbreath says older youth who are aging out of the system during this time are facing additional difficulties. They don’t have permanent familial connections, and access to stable housing and transportation is often limited. Many now are experiencing unemployment and the uncertainties of the pandemic. 

“All of those things happening at the same time makes it very difficult,” she said. 

VDSS provides an optional extended foster care program, Fostering Futures, to youth who turn 18 in foster care. According to a department spokesperson, the VDSS has offered enhanced support to young adults aging out during the pandemic, including providing stipends and financial guidance to all youth turning 21. 

The state’s 2020 budget for foster care was greatly reduced in response to COVID-19. Advocacy groups, like Voices for Virginia’s Children, are working with lawmakers to put more money in the state budget to support foster care services in the upcoming year.