Jessica Overstreet first entered foster care at age 14, separated from her siblings and knowing very little about what her new life meant aside from what she had seen in the popular musical “Annie.” So for a while, at the beginning, she kept her status a secret.
Her case manager was “a very good person,” she said, but so overwhelmed that Overstreet wishes she'd had more one-on-one time to share how hard it was to be separated from her family.
“We had Zoom, we had Skype and stuff like that. But it wasn’t utilized at all,” Overstreet, now 26 and living on her own in Tampa, Florida, recalled in a video interview.
Foster children have enormous challenges even in the best of times. The coronavirus pandemic threatens them with even greater turmoil, isolating them from adult supervisors and friends and making it harder to move on to new lives — either with biological or adoptive families, or as newly independent adults.
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Overstreet fears the new reality brought by the COVID-19 pandemic has made some foster kids’ already difficult situations “100 times worse.”
Celeste Bodner, executive director of FosterClub, a nonprofit organization through which foster youth connect and support each other, says mental health crises are a palpable risk, given “the stress this crisis is causing, layered on top of the preexisting trauma."
Because of the pandemic, the teachers, coaches and other adults whose watchful eyes once proved a helpful barometer of foster children’s well-being are now kept at a distance.
Jeff Sprinkle, a longtime court-appointed foster child advocate in Georgia, estimates that under normal circumstances, 17 adults are engaged to some extent in the lives of each of the foster children he helps. That has shrunk drastically, he said.
“It’s hard on the children,” said Sprinkle, 66. “But it’s also hard on the foster parents, because they end up filling the shoes of the 17 people who were investing in the children’s lives previously.”
Bodner's group is hosting online meetings to help foster children stay connected at a time when they’ve lost the typical communication channels that school and outside socializing provide.
But children in foster care may have less access to technology than their peers, she said, particularly those in group care facilities where use of digital devices can be limited.
Group facilities pose other challenges, such as maintaining social distancing and taking other measures that health officials have recommended to prevent the coronavirus’s spread, noted Jennifer Pokempner, senior attorney at the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center.
Advocates for foster children have long urged a decreased reliance on such institutions, which housed about 10% of the 437,283 children in the U.S. foster care system as of Sept. 30, 2018, according to an annual report by the Department of Health and Human Services.
But for some, group homes are the only stable environment available. Foster children stay in group facilities or individual foster homes while they await long-term placement — either through adoption or a return to their biological families — or come of age and move out on their own.
The stress of transitioning from foster care to legal adulthood — never an easy task — has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, which has devastated local economies and further complicated the process of finding a new home and job.
“You're expected to turn 18 and do all this stuff, and it’s just hard,” said Overstreet, who is using her own experience to help current and former foster youth through the Florida Youth Shine advocacy group.
Natasha, a 19-year-old foster youth from South Gate, a city outside Los Angeles, was visiting her biological parents with her two younger sisters recently when she was notified that she would lose her placement in her foster home if she didn’t return within two weeks because of the distance she'd traveled. But she was also required to get tested for the virus before she could return, which she still hasn't been able to do.
“Courts are closed,” said Natasha, who spoke on the condition that her last name not be used. “We can call our lawyers, but they can’t really do anything.”
Federal law permits states to keep providing foster care benefits to youth after they turn 18, and many extend some level of services until age 21. In response to the virus outbreak, several states have opted to pay the cost of keeping foster youth who would otherwise age out.
At the federal level, the Department of Health and Human Service's Children’s Bureau is asking welfare agencies to ensure that foster children in college have a stable place to stay as long as on-campus dormitories remain closed.
The bureau is also urging attorneys and court officials to use technology to help child welfare cases move through the system. The American Bar Association asked congressional leaders last month to route $30 million in emergency funding to help cases get processed remotely while courts remain closed.
"Case delays mean more than just the passage of time – they can mean celebrating a birthday away from home, first words or steps that parents don’t get to see, or just missing the sense of security that comes from being with family during this uncertain time,” the bar association’s president, Judy Perry Martinez, said in a statement.
Virus relief legislation released Tuesday by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives includes some foster care-related provisions, including a reprieve for those who might age out of care, although that bill is in the early stages of congressional negotiations.
Tara Perry, CEO of the National Court Appointed Special Advocate/Guardian ad Litem Association for Children, is hoping the current upheaval leads to positive long-term change in the foster care system.
“Usually what happens out of these crisis-type situations is you see humanity at its best," Perry said. “I’m hoping more foster homes will be available, that there will be more incentive.”
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