For tens of thousands of vulnerable children whose lives and families were already unstable before COVID-19 hit, the pandemic has brought further disruption, unpredictability and loss.
Prior to 2020, the US child welfare system had begun to adjust its approach. Christian ministries, advocates and government programs have increasingly focused on prevention and early intervention for at-risk families to get the support they need.
According to Cheri Williams, senior vice president of national programs at Bethany Christian Services, there has been a “huge shift” recently, as systems work to find ways to “keep children safe and protected with their [biological] families.”
The Families First legislation, passed in 2018, addressed tensions in the foster care system by promoting ways to prevent children from being unnecessarily removed from their parents. The law offered more help to foster carers — parents who could care for children in need — while aiming to reduce the need for foster care and limit group home options to the most difficult situations.
The coronavirus has derailed some of these plans, as everything from funding to investments to prevention programs has come to a halt amid government lockdowns and insufficient virtual makeshift solutions. Agencies and advocates are now trying to move forward with pre-pandemic plans, but the consequences of the past two years linger.
Foster care entries fell 14% from 2019 to 2020, according to data released late last year, but not for lack of need. On the contrary, there were fewer opportunities to see and report abuse or neglect.
The Administration for Children and Families found that parental layoffs were down 11% in 2020 and that 8,000 fewer children were adopted in 2020 than in 2011, likely due to lack of oversight and supervision. bureaucratic lockdown induced by COVID-19.
According to the Children’s Bureau, a federal agency, more than half of the decrease in entries occurred in March, April and May, just as stay-at-home orders across the country were enacted. Calls to child abuse hotlines declined in most states, and runaways and child deaths increased by 13% and 6%, respectively.
Megan Perry is a Christian adoptive parent and volunteer ad litem guardian (GAL) in Noblesville, Indiana. She has hosted and worked with children throughout the pandemic. In her role as a GAL, also known as a Court-Appointed Special Advocate or CASA, she checked on children through video calls, often with parents just out of frame.
“It’s hard when you’re not around to tell if the neglect and abuse is continuing or is it just a parenting style,” she said. Christianity today. “You can only see very small things on video, and you can’t be home or go to school, and everything is so impersonal.”
Due to the lack of access, Perry couldn’t be sure she was learning everything necessary.
For foster children, if the trauma of separation from home wasn’t bad enough, they had to go through periods of COVID-19-related confinement without any in-person contact with their parents.
“The kids in my files wanted to see their parents so incredibly bad,” she said. “And they would only get 15 minutes of Zoom with them.”
Some of those same children, those who could have been reunited with their families in another year, have been separated longer due to delays in foster care release requirements.
Delays in court proceedings, parenting classes and drug treatment programs needed for families to get their children back have caused the system to freeze, leaving children to linger without their parents. The other issue was COVID-19 itself. More than 200,000 children in the United States have lost a parent or caregiver to the virus, adding to the needs of an overburdened system.
And while experts believe the best place for children who can’t be with their parents is often with close caregivers, those family members are disproportionately older, putting them at higher risk of contracting the virus. virus. This meant fewer foster families and caregivers were available to open their homes, and less supervision and opportunities for children to return to their birth families.
Weeks into the pandemic, Bethany President Chris Palusky predicted this outcome. “Coronavirus has already claimed millions of victims,” he wrote for CT in April 2020. “Whenever the COVID-19 crisis ends, we will need homes for a different type of victim: the additional children entering foster care over the coming weeks and months.”
In many states, the foster care system was already struggling before COVID-19. Last year, a shocking study reported that 978 children disappeared from Missouri’s foster care system in 2019. The state is no exception. Gen Justice, an organization that exists to protect and represent vulnerable children, has found that 20,000 children “disappear” from foster care every year across the country.
Jedd Medefind, president of the Christian Alliance for Orphans, said the stories of missing children are a heartbreaking insight into the foster care system and a call for the church to play a “vital role”.
May marks National Foster Family Month. The church ‘cannot contract out’ the responsibility it has to help ‘provide care homes and supportive communities’ for those in the child welfare system, it said. -he says.
CAFO works with churches across the country to “develop effective adoption, foster care and global care for orphans grounded in the local church.”
According to a 2018 Lifeway Research survey, around 40% of Protestant worshipers say their congregation has been involved in adoption or foster care, and a quarter knew someone in their church who had fostered children. .
Some fear that many of the missing – usually runaways – are trapped in the sex trafficking industry. Studies from the University of Connecticut found that half of sex trafficking victims had been in the child protection system or the juvenile justice system at some point. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimated that of the children reported missing in 2021, 19% were likely victims of sex trafficking.
Gen Justice worked to help pass a bill in Arizona that would require the immediate reporting of missing adoptive children through a photo identification system integrated with search and rescue. “Our missing children will now also be reported to law enforcement within two hours, rather than weeks later or not at all,” Gen Justice founder Darcy Olson wrote.
Despite these challenges, child protection advocates are on a mission to protect more children through prevention and early intervention services that keep families together. With Families First funding, foster agencies, government departments and other organizations work with families before the need for foster care arises.
The legislation provides funding for parents to cover mental health services, addiction treatment or parenting skills courses. It also allocates funds to families providing family care and vulnerable young people who come out of the foster care system without support until the age of 23.
“We’re saying, ‘Hey, how can we, as the body of Christ and the church, come to the side of those who are struggling?’ said Williams. “How can we learn to be good neighbors, as believers can and should be, rather than judging families in difficulty? »
Williams believes Bethany’s mission as a Christian organization is to listen to the voices of foster families and children and find innovative solutions in partnership with donated federal resources.
Even with pandemic restrictions lifted, job loss, addiction, depression, anxiety, and other negative responses could make it harder for the birth family to unite.
“As Christians, we have a clear imperative that God designed the family as what is best for his children,” said the Medefind, which supports new changes in the Families First legislation for support families, but hopes to see continued improvement on the side of child protection services. as well. “Take from one [source of funding] and moving it to the other will make many children very vulnerable.
Because Families First directs funds towards family reunification and prevention, some of the funding for child protection services, the money that goes to foster care programs, has been diverted. Various components of the Families First legislation have been rolled out over time. The next piece of the bill is expected to be in place by the end of 2025, when the U.S. Government Accountability Office submits an evaluation study to Congress.
Other useful tools, such as the Pandemic Youth and Foster Care Support Act, have also been passed. This law prohibited states from allowing a child to leave foster care before October 1, 2021, giving young adults the option to return to foster care and receive funding if needed.
With 23,000 young people aging every year, many of whom become homeless, this bill was important. Money, however, is only one facet of the success of these young adults.
CAFO’s “Aging Out” initiative was developed to enable churches to accompany children coming out of the system through a series of steps, including life skills training, transitional housing, spiritual mentoring, career development and church and community support.
Other programs, like San Antonio’s Thru Project, are locally based and started from denominational ministries or churches. The Thru Project helps aging people find housing, get life skills training, and get free cell phones and job training.
“Life is never easy for young people transitioning to adulthood without the support and care of family,” the Medefind said. “COVID and our response to it has greatly amplified that tension and isolation. The one thing every aging youngster needs most – strong relationships – has been pushed that much further out of reach.