How the Pandemic Roiled the Foster Care System

For the first four years of her childhood, Vanessa Brunetta’s family was homeless. Later, her family was rocked by domestic violence to the point that “my older brother and I would spend most nights at a neighbor’s house or locking ourselves in our room,” she says. By age eight, she’d been placed in foster care; in that first year, she was shuffled through four different foster homes. By high school the number had grown to eight.

Through it all, and despite often feeling “unseen, unheard and unimportant,” as she put it, Vanessa was a star. She earned a 3.9 grade point average at The Bishop’s School, one of San Diego’s most prestigious private high schools, and admission to University of California, Los Angeles, the most applied-to college in the United States. Her graduation from Bishop’s was to be a genuine celebration.

Except, of course, that this story takes place during the age of COVID. As it turned out, there was no ceremony, no chance to walk across the stage for her foster family of the past three years, whom Vanessa had grown to love dearly. No special moment with Laura, the court-appointed special advocate (CASA) who had stood by her for eight years. In a young lifetime of chaos, even a small slice of normalcy was not to be.

“Until I became involved in the system, I had no idea how the deck was so stacked against these kids,” says Tod Mattox, Vanessa’s current foster father. “Off the top of my head, I imagine that the first step is awareness of the issue.”

Among the unseen victims of COVID-19’s ravages are the legions of foster children for whom basic services and support were for months suspended. Financial, emotional, educational, social and even some basic housing issues were pushed aside; the foster care system itself was overwhelmed by virus-related court closures and delays. Mental health care, so critical for young foster children, was confined often to calls or Zoom meetings. Uncertainty about the future, always a reality in the system, became the coin of the realm.

Chicago saw a 33 percent increase in the number of children entering foster care. States like California, Kansas and Florida meanwhile, noted decreases in reports of child abuse—a chilling reminder of what can happen when watchful eyes no longer are present. A CDC report also noted fewer child abuse-related emergency department visits during the pandemic. “It’s not that it is happening less,” says Moisés Barón, CEO of the San Diego Center for Children. “It’s just that there are fewer mandated reporters interacting with the youth.”

San Diego, the area where I live, has seen roughly a 10 percent decline in the number of children coming into foster care since last July, according to Stephen Moore, chief program officer of Voices for Children, a nonprofit organization that supports foster children. To some experts, that’s a direct indication that abuse in the home has been underreported during COVID’s reign. An Associated Press data analysis found that 200,000 fewer child abuse and neglect investigations were reported during the pandemic—an 18 percent decrease from the year before.

Those numbers are expected to rise, Moore says, as kids return to school this fall and become more involved with mandated reporters, the teachers, coaches and therapists who are legally obligated to report abuse. “The concern is that with all the stress, job loss and pressure families are under right now, unrecorded child maltreatment may be occurring,” Moore adds. “Financial insecurity in families has been shown to be associated with abuse in prior work.”

The past year also has exacted a heavy emotional and mental toll on foster children. Deprived of contact with their natural siblings or families, often devoid of any sense of support, they have experienced increased anxiety, depression and feelings of isolation, Baron says. “If we think about the pandemic as a community trauma … our foster youth, because of the vulnerabilities that they’ve experienced already and their prior history of trauma and developmental challenges, really have been impacted in a more significant way.”

In a John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY) study of about 600 people aged 18–24 who were either in foster care or had experienced homelessness, four out of five said COVID had a major impact on their mental health and wellness, while 27 percent reported feeling “down, depressed or hopeless” nearly daily since the pandemic began. A CDC report last November, meanwhile, noted a 24 percent increase in mental health-related emergencies for children ages five to 11, and a 31 percent increase among youth of ages 12 to 17.

Into this challenge step CASA volunteers and the many social workers and children’s advocate groups that support them. In San Diego, CASA volunteers from Voices for Children help advocate for foster children in courts, schools and homes. “Having the calming presence of someone who you know and trust is at times invaluable to children in such challenging and stressful circumstances,” says Moore.

The advocates have had to find creative ways to engage foster kids virtually, including helping them with tools and access to remote learning. It’s a huge issue: According to the JBAY survey, 100 percent of California students reported that the pandemic negatively affected their education. More than a quarter said they stopped attending class; one in eight quit school completely.

Therapy is common for kids in foster care, Moore says, but the past year meant a sharp reduction in access to such services, a theme we have seen repeated among many groups across the country. With telehealth services duly noted, the loss of in-person therapy and human contact is vital for foster youth.

“I think for these kids, to have somebody who actually goes out of their way to see them is incredible,” says Kelly Douglas, the CEO of Voices for Children. In April, CASAs were able to resume in-person outings, arranging sibling visits, grabbing ice cream—mostly, being “present and available,” in the words of a CASA volunteer, Tim.

Last fall, Vanessa Brunetta enrolled at U.C.L.A. with plans to double major in sociology and communication. She became one of only about 600 students living on campus, under the school’s emergency housing provision for those with nowhere else to go. Occasionally locked down by COVID restrictions, “It sort of reminded me of the emotional impact of being in foster homes where I felt like there were people around me physically, but I was alone,” she says. She worries about how to afford food, and she misses the companionship of her high-school foster family.

“Foster youth are missing parents, really missing a stable family unit,” Vanessa told me. On a college level, that can mean no home for holiday or summer breaks, no one to help change a tire or open a savings account. Critically, it can also mean [no one] to speak with when the going is rough. “Sometimes,” she says, “all we need is someone to just rant to, that understands.”

Still, her story is an almost optimal one, a CASA success. According to national statistics, only 15 percent of foster children go on to attend college. “Vanessa is a go-getter, and nothing stands in her way,” says Laura, her advocate.

Barón sees in the entire foster situation a need for more proactivity, be it academic or with mental health, and he includes “having the resources to help families reach more stability in their home environment,” adding: “We know that early identification and early intervention make a big difference.” Several stimulus bills passed during the pandemic, including the American Rescue Plan Act, provide funding for adolescent mental health, education and nutrition, among other things.

The immediate step, meanwhile, is to advocate for foster children, or become a CASA volunteer. “It can just take one caring person in a child’s life to help them overcome trauma,” says Douglas. After a year of COVID, that need is more acute than ever.

To learn more about how to become a CASA volunteer, click here.

This is an opinion and analysis article; the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American



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