The coronavirus crisis has put children in foster care – and those who need to be there – at serious risk in numerous, unnerving ways. To date, however, they and their families have barely been mentioned as potential victims of the pandemic, and the federal government has done too little to help them. That has to change as quickly as possible, either with targeted resources in the next economic stimulus bill or in separate legislation explicitly designed to assist the millions of people in this particularly vulnerable population.
Here’s the starkest example of the harm many professionals fear is already occurring: that an unknowable number of these girls and boys are being physically or emotionally injured today, right now, as you read this. But some are not being removed from their abusers’ homes because social workers (like many other people nationwide still trying to do their jobs) are stymied by a lack of resources; because the reporting of suspected abuse and neglect cases is dropping as would-be reporters hunker down and tend to their own concerns; and because some workers can’t leave their own homes, even to investigate complaints of child maltreatment.
To make matters worse, mental health professionals agree the mistreatment of children increases during periods of high stress. And we all know that we’re not only living in such a period, but also that it will more stressful for some time. Now add to this reality the fact that children’s emotional and physical injuries are very often detected and reported by teachers and other personnel in school; that families struggling to care for children with special needs aren’t receiving critical services and supports; that recruitment and training of foster and adoptive families are at a standstill; and that these are only a few examples of the unfolding tragedies that child welfare, medical, mental health and other practitioners are seeing in every community of every state nationwide.
It’s a formula for disaster for a population that was already vulnerable before this historic public health calamity began, and it will have equally far-reaching consequences for our country more broadly, because the personal, economic and social impact will ripple throughout society if we don’t start responding soon.
As a start, a broad coalition of local, state and national organizations that focus on child welfare – including the National Center on Adoption and Permanency, which I lead – has submitted a letter to congressional leaders in both houses calling for legislation that would provide billions of additional federal dollars to take specific actions that include:
- Supporting families to keep children safe through activities such as bolstering locally driven prevention programs and diminishing the need for out-of-home placements;
- Strengthening response and intervention systems by increasing funding to find relatives to care for children, to provide technology and protective resources for workers so they’re safe when they assist families, and to mitigate the pandemic’s impact on child welfare courts;
- Addressing the needs of older youth already in or transitioning out of foster care by giving states additional money and flexibility in areas such as jobs, housing and financial support.
As lawmakers and the president set their priorities during the coming days and months, they need to know that this is not a small, niche group looking for its share of federal largess during tough times. Here, with statistics from Child Trends, is a glimpse of the population that needs our attention and assistance:
- 7 million infants, toddlers and children with disabilities who, with their families, are struggling with the sudden absence of health services and learning accommodations; another 43,000 are youth living in juvenile justice facilities, where social separation is tough to achieve;
- 8 million children being cared for by grandparents and others who are elderly – that is, adults at increased risk of complications associated with the coronavirus;
- Almost a half-million children (most with special needs) living in foster homes, some with families unprepared for long-term placements and others waiting to return to their parents;
- 5 million children living with at least one unauthorized immigrant parent, meaning high stress and a lower likelihood of their families applying for social services or having health insurance.
Legislative action is needed ASAP to start helping these children and families, but far more also must be done. Indeed, a strategy has to be developed to deal with the longer-term, transformative effects that the pandemic will inevitably have on the child welfare system – as it will on so many others.
First, however, immediate problems have to be addressed. Children being abused and neglected, from coast to coast, is an urgent one. Congress and the President simply have to step up. Now.