My proverbial backyard was the best place to begin my journey to motherhood through adoption. In Los Angeles County, where I live, 20 percent of the 20,876 children in foster care are Black. Black children here, and in the rest of the country, are overrepresented in the system, and that is the reason I signed up to become a foster/adoptive parent in 2006. I wanted to make a difference in the life of a Black child—a baby boy, to be specific. Black male infants are the least likely to be adopted, because of false assumptions about who they are—aggressive, incorrigible—and who they will become: gangbangers, violent. I was confident I could help change that narrative, because I easily saw beyond that cruel stereotype. Years later, I would add a Black princess to my lot, also through adoption, making my motherhood mission complete.
All foster children are forced to cope with transitional situations and not knowing what the future may hold. The Covid-19 pandemic took these uncertainties to new extremes. Thankfully, my children’s journeys through the foster care system were relatively brief. My daughter’s case sailed to the finish line without incident. She was assigned two social workers and then an adoption worker. Thirteen months after the process began, we went to dependency court, where before a judge I swore to love her as my own. I have photos of that moment with my family and the judges who declared us forever bonded. My son faced more bumps in the road. Over the course of two years, he had nine social workers. Some were experienced, others were not, but all were juggling too many cases. Large and complex, his case was passed from one social worker to the next. On multiple occasions, I had to educate successive workers on where we were with the permanency plans. This was unexpected, but being knowledgeable about my son’s status made me a more organized foster mother and the monthly visits from social workers more tolerable.
The story is very different for current foster children whose plans for reunification or permanency got derailed by the pandemic. Immediate safety protocols went into effect to stop the spread of the disease. Covid mandates delayed reunifications, movement between foster homes, and adoption finalizations; the whole system came to a screeching halt. Child dependency courts went dark last March, exacerbating the logjam of existing cases until they reopened virtually at various times in different states. Foster children were stuck in temporary placements within individual homes or in overcrowded group homes, with pending placements on hold.
It often takes two years for the reunification process to conclude. During this window, biological parents are given chances to resolve the issues that led to their child’s detainment. If the issue was homelessness, parents have to find housing. If the parents had addiction issues, they have to get clean and stable. In California, approximately every six months, the parents’ progress is reviewed. If all stipulations are met, the child is reunified with them; if not, the case is extended for six additional months. Because neither of my children’s biological parents had satisfied the requirements for reunification after these time periods, their cases moved to the concurrent planning stage, which began after the birth-parent rights were terminated and included preparing their kids for permanency with a foster/adoptive family. In both situations, I had the honor of becoming their child’s new parent.
For others on the road to reunification, the pandemic completely derailed this process. Not only was the foster care system interrupted, but birth parents hoping to start or complete reunification plans experienced major setbacks. As housing instability and job insecurity deepen, families are increasingly unable to access the services they need to reunite with their children, because rehabilitative and support services have closed or waiting lists have lengthened. Pre-Covid, as of 2018, more than 32,000 children had been stuck in supposedly temporary care for three years or more. Post-Covid, this timeline could be even longer. Meanwhile, the reunification clock, which starts the day children are detained by child welfare services, will run out; biological parents’ rights will be forever terminated; and families will be irreparably broken. The solution rests in HR 7976. Introduced last summer by Milwaukee Representative Gwen Moore, the bill proposes to “suspend the timeline, not parental rights.” In other words, because the pandemic created a public health crisis, states will have flexibility in halting the reunification clock, giving biological parents time to reconnect and, one hopes, reunify with their kids.
Until that bill becomes law, foster kids all over the nation will continue to feel lonely, depressed, and disconnected from loved ones. In fact, 52 percent of young adults currently or formerly in foster care reported that Covid negatively affected their health or mental health care. LGBTQ foster youth in particular face housing and job insecurity, as well as placements in homes where they might be misgendered, leading to violence, depression, and suicidal ideations. For the lucky few whose reunifications or adoptions were made final during the pandemic, there were no happy photos with family or a judge. Instead, there were screenshots of judicial hearings held via teleconference.
Foster youth were not the only group directly impacted by the pandemic. Foster parents, who are an integral piece of the foster care system, worried about contracting the virus from children moving in and out of their homes. Those with preexisting conditions—diabetes, asthma, compromised immune systems, etc.—were reluctant to facilitate visits with their foster children’s biological family members or to take in additional kids. Expanding their bubble put the entire household at risk for anything from mild symptoms to death. Because children move around a lot, their chances of picking up the virus were high. This led to the question of where they would quarantine. Alternatively, if a foster parent became infected, she would need to quarantine, further shrinking the pool of available foster homes. In one fell swoop, the pandemic left foster parents in precarious health legitimately nervous about fulfilling their obligations.
Before Covid, foster parents supported the reunification process by taking kids to visit their biological relatives, to children’s court, to doctor’s appointments, and so on. I remember leaving work early to pick up my 10-month-old from day care to take him 30 minutes in the opposite direction to meet his social worker so he could spend one hour with his biological mother. I did the same for my daughter. These visits were stressful and time-consuming, and there was no guarantee that their biological mothers would arrive on time, if at all. On more than one occasion, the social worker called at the last moment to reschedule or cancel a visit. By then, I was already en route and irritated that I had juggled my schedule to accommodate a no-show. As frustrated as I was, I reminded myself that the lives my children led before me were important.
Looking back, my issues were minor, as I was able to complete the foster care/adoption journey. Though I am not required to, I have made sure that my kids maintain ties with their biological siblings. We see them a few times a year for birthday parties, special church programs, or riding scooters at the park. All of this stopped last March, though, when the pandemic shut the whole world down. And for the first time in seven years, my children did not see or touch their biological brother or sister in person. I tried to look on the bright side: My kids had each other. Such is not the case for thousands of foster children, separated from their siblings, kin, and birth parents. Though foster parents are responsible for maintaining family ties, social workers are on the front line. They monitor visits, transport kids from foster home to foster home or dependency court in their personal vehicles, and spend hours of face time with foster children. Their reports, which determine reunification or concurrent planning, are based on their firsthand observations. Some workers worry about being deployed during the pandemic. One social worker, who wished to remain anonymous, said, “My husband has asthma. I would be devastated if I became infected and he got sick.” Those invisible first responders are as vulnerable as the children they serve, because according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, “Some jurisdictions do not have adequate gloves, masks or hand sanitizer to keep caseworkers safe during investigations and home visits.”
It’s been more than one year since the first case of Covid-19 was reported, and scientists have developed a vaccine for it. Their research allows movie theaters, summer camps, and schools to reopen, paving the way for the foster care system to reopen too. But amid the jubilation over lifted restrictions, let us remember the foster children who have lost precious moments with loved ones, time they will never get back.