As the government works diligently to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, the focus has rightly been on shoring up the medical response, containing the virus’s spread and stabilizing the economy. We recognize that it is vitally important to minimize the human toll of this crisis and to ensure that the country is able to recover when the disease is eliminated. In any crisis, though, it is important to pay special attention to those who are particularly vulnerable, who are often left out of conversations and left behind as the country responds. At the Children’s Defense Fund, we are especially concerned about a population that was at-risk before this crisis began and is particularly at-risk now: the children and families in the child welfare system.
Social distancing efforts that lead service providers to close their doors mean that, during the crisis, children will not be able to get the mental and behavioral health services they need and that parents who are working to reunite with their children won’t be able to complete necessary requirements for drug treatment, counseling or parent training. School and child care center closures will put additional strains on foster families, potentially leading to more placement disruptions. Measures will need to be taken to ensure that visitation between parents and youth in the system can occur without undue risk. On top of this, we have seen during previous economic crises that instability leads to more children entering child welfare, as parents without sick days or child care are forced to choose between losing their jobs or leaving their children at home unattended, as parents avoid taking their kids to the doctor because they can’t afford to, and as parents lose their jobs and subsequently their homes.
At particular risk are older youth, who are far more likely to be placed in residential facilities, where they will be in close quarters with other youth and will be cared for by a revolving door of adults, vastly increasing their likelihood of exposure to the virus. Youth in extended care are required to be working or in school to receive the benefits of the system. As schools and businesses close, they risk losing necessary government support, often their only safety net. On top of this, older youth in school often rely on their university for housing. When universities take appropriate precautions by closing dormitories, most students simply return home to live with their families, but youth in extended foster care don’t have that option and can be made homeless as a result. As universities consider how best to stop the spread of the virus, it is crucial that they consider the unintended consequences that otherwise prudent actions may have for youth in care.
Also at especially high risk are children in the care of older relatives, whether they are in foster care or being cared by relatives informally outside of the system. Kinship caregivers are a crucial part of our child welfare system, helping to keep children out of traditional foster care and providing a safe, stable, loving home for children. It is important for the functioning of our child welfare system that supports be provided for older adults caring for children. As high-risk older adults take precautions to avoid contracting the virus, which limit their ability to leave the house, we must support healthy nutrition access for both children and caregivers through expansion of food and medication delivery programs. As schools close, older caregivers will be under increased strain physically, emotionally and financially, caring for often energetic children for more hours of the day and without school meal programs. It may be necessary to increase TANF child-only grants to reduce their financial strain and to increase access to respite care so that older caregivers are not overstretched by increased responsibilities. And in the eventuality that caregivers do contract the virus, the child welfare system will need to be prepared to respond, with minimal disruption to the youth in question.
Finally, we are concerned about the impact on and the impact of the child welfare workforce, who will not be able to practice social distancing as they conduct home visits. Measures must be taken to minimize their exposure to the virus and to prevent them from spreading it between homes. This will involve enhanced care and sanitation, but it also points to a need for better technology resources, including expanded video capabilities for visits that don’t need to happen in person. Our child welfare workforce is an important front line in the fight to protect children from maltreatment and they are often willing to put themselves in harm’s way to do their jobs. As much as is possible, we should not ask them to do that. Investing in their safety will help ensure children are not only safe from maltreatment, but safe from COVID-19.
We are already seeing the strain that this pandemic is causing across the country. Its impacts are clear in our schools, in our hospitals and in our economy. As we respond to the crisis, though, it is important that we remember the needs of children in the child welfare system, who too often fall through the cracks. We can—and must—ensure their needs are given the attention they deserve.
To learn more about CDF’s viewpoints and analysis on how the coronavirus is impacting children and youth, click here.