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Foster kids who can't visit parents are struggling under coronavirus isolation, advocates say

"It's difficult to help them understand what's going on," a foster father said. "Sometimes even we don't understand."

A typical morning for Arnie Eby begins at 6 a.m. He and his wife, Donna, fix breakfast for their four adopted kids and three foster children, then check their backpacks and pack lunch boxes. Once his wife heads to work as the health manager of a local Head Start program, he sees the children onto five different school buses and then sits down for a cup of coffee.

"Monday morning, that recovery cup of coffee might take an extra hour," said Eby, 56, who lives in Hagerstown, Maryland, and works part time helping support other foster families in the state.

Since the threat of COVID-19 closed schools in Maryland nearly three weeks ago, life in Eby's home has changed dramatically.

Local nonprofits that provide mental health services and programs for children with disabilities — which Eby and his wife rely on to support their seven children, who range in age from 5 to 18 and have differing levels of special needs and histories of trauma — closed shortly after. (The couple also have two biological daughters who have grown up and moved away from home.) Now, with their seven younger children home all day, the Ebys' only support comes from emails and calls with state caseworkers.

Image: Arnie and Donna Eby
Arnie and Donna Eby have been foster parents for nearly two decades but say the coronavirus lockdown is "one of the most stretching experiences" they've been through.Courtesy of the Eby family

"You go on Facebook and you see people saying, 'You need this schedule, you need to do this and that,'" Eby said. "But you're lucky to get even a few minutes scheduled. It's exhausting, to say the least."

Child welfare advocates say that America's foster care system, which relies on in-person contact and human connection, is struggling under the weight of this unprecedented period of isolation, which is risking the well-being of children, foster parents and biological parents.

America's 437,283 children in foster care, for whom life can already feel unpredictable, are particularly vulnerable to the disruption that COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, has brought to daily life. One of Eby's foster children, a 6-year-old, has become so anxious about suddenly staying home from school that he's no longer able to control his bladder.

"His routine is gone, even though he's with his siblings and in familiar, safe settings," Eby said. "A hundred times a day he asks if he's going to school tomorrow. It's difficult to help them understand what's going on. Sometimes, even we don't understand."

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Many states have also canceled supervised visits between children and their biological family members because of safety concerns about social distancing and a lack of caseworkers. The almost "overnight" disappearance of family visits is worsening the isolation of foster children, said Celeste Bodner, executive director of FosterClub, a national nonprofit network for youth in foster care.

While caseworkers are trying to fill the gaps with video conferencing, children in foster families and especially those in group homes where internet access is more limited may not have the technology to make the move to video, Bodner said.

For parents working through the process of being reunited with their children in foster care, it's not just about not seeing their children in person. Many family courts are limiting their work to emergency removals of children and not hearing reunification cases, as in the state of New York, which can be devastating to parents, advocates say.

"Families have worked really hard to do everything they're supposed to do to get their kids back and then this happens. Put yourself in the parent's position, or the child's position of wanting to go home and be part of their family again. Now they can't do it," Irene Clements, executive director of the National Foster Parent Association, said.

"It puts them back into another tailspin. Why work so hard when it's never going to come to fruition?" she added.

Image: Arnie and Donna Eby's adopted and biological children
Arnie and Donna Eby's four adopted children, pictured with their two biological daughters.Courtesy of the Eby family

Tom Rawlings, director of Georgia's Division of Family and Children Services, said that his department had moved "everything to virtual wherever possible." But caseworkers are still meeting families in person in cases of serious allegations that would be difficult to assess via videoconferencing, like ones involving younger, nonverbal children who need to be checked for signs of physical abuse, he said.

New guidelines from the federal Administration for Children and Families advise child welfare departments that monthly mandatory home visits for children in foster care can be moved to videoconferencing, although departments should follow their own state's protocols for when to investigate abuse and neglect in person.

Child welfare departments across the country have seen a significant drop in reports of child maltreatment since the social isolation began, which Rawlings says can be largely attributed to the fact that children aren't coming into contact with mandated reporters at day care locations, schools and after-school activities where staff are trained to spot signs of neglect and abuse. In Georgia, reports of child maltreatment have halved since schools closed, Rawlings said.

While the Administration for Children and Families says official statistics for rates of child maltreatment during the coronavirus outbreak won't be publicly available until 2022, Rawlings and other experts fear that the social and economic stress of the pandemic could exacerbate neglect and abuse.

"Our concern is that when this is over and children do come back to school, we may find that children have suffered tremendously during this time period," he added.

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Bodner, of the FosterClub, is concerned about abuse of children who are already in the child welfare system and who might now fall through the cracks.

"We have kids in congregate care settings who've been pulled from public school, visitations have ceased, and they're not being seen in court,” she said. “They're at risk of abuse from residents and abuse from caregivers."

Eby and his wife have fostered more than 130 children over nearly two decades. He says this has been one of the hardest times he can remember.

"We as humans have a capacity to work through things and to improve when we know what the end is,” he said. “Right now, I don't know what the end is."