Impact of coronavirus on child welfare: a one-sided federal view

afScreen Shot 2020-04-18 at 12.58.40 PM.pngThe coronavirus is affecting every aspects of the child welfare system and its ability to achieve its three major goals–safety, permanency and well-being. In our last post, Child Welfare Monitor discussed the threat posed by social distancing to the safety of abused and neglected children who are not involved with the child welfare system. For children in the system, especially those who are in foster care, the disruptions posed by the response to the coronavirus pandemic pose a great threat to their hopes for permanency. Two top officials of the federal Children’s Bureau have expressed great concern about the effects of the crisis on permanency and their hopes that the states will prioritize family reunification both during and after the period of social distancing. Unfortunately, their formulation of the issue reveals a one-sided analysis of the problem. Moreover, they seem to have no interest in the safety of children trapped in their homes with abusive or neglectful parents.

Federal officials have rightly expressed their concern that the coronavirus pandemic will extend some children’s stays in foster care. There are three major reasons this might happen, as described in an excellent article in the Chronicle of Social Change. Services to parents, such as mental health, drug treatment, and parenting skills programs, are threatened by the pandemic. Some may have shifted to virtual services, but not all parents have the technological wherewithal to participate. Other services might not be provided at all. Secondly, reunifications must be ordered by a court, and courts have been drastically affected by the crisis. Most court buildings are closed; many are conducting virtual hearings but only for hearings deemed essential and able to be conducted virtually.

Third and perhaps most important, most visits between children in foster care and their parents have become virtual, conducted through apps like Facetime or Skype. But virtual visits are difficult with infants and young children, and for older children they cannot substitute for extended visits. Moreover, virtual visitation does not allow the normal progression from shorter and supervised visits to longer unsupervised ones, culminating in reunification as parents are able to prove that they can manage the children for extended periods of time.

The timelines written into law by the Adoption and Safe Families Act (AFSA) could result in termination of the rights of parents who through no fault of their own were unable to comply with their court-ordered case plans. These timelines require that a state must file a petition for Termination of Parental Rights (TPR) if a child has been in foster care for 15 of the last 22 months, with certain exceptions. If these timelines were strictly interpreted, the COVID-19 crisis could result in the termination of many parents’ rights because they would have been unable to complete services or demonstrate appropriate parenting skills by the end of the 15 months.

It must be noted, however, that the ASFA timelines are often honored more in the breach than in the observance even in normal times. The law allows them to be exceeded if there are “compelling reasons” to determine that TPR is not in the best interests of the child. Under these auspices, many parents have been given much more time to work toward reunification. As a social worker in the District of Columbia, this writer saw numerous cases in which children were reunified with their families after much more than 15 months in foster care.

Last week, the Chronicle of Social Change published an impassioned column by Jerry Milner, associate commissioner of the U.S. Children’s Bureau and his special assistant, David Kelly. Milner and Kelly argue that the virus itself should not be a reason to keep parents and children apart.

Despite our strong preference that all measures be taken to continue in-person family time for children in foster care and their parents and siblings, there will undoubtedly be instances where such family time is not provided. In some instances that may be appropriate due to the presence of the virus in the resource family home or home of the parent. In many more instances, there will be no known safety threat.

It appears that Milner and Kelly are advocating for in-person visits whenever there is no virus in the home of the foster family or birth parent. Governor Brian Kemp of Georgia became the focus of ridicule when he claimed on April 1 to have just discovered that as much as 25 percent of those with coronavirus might have no symptoms but still transmit the virus to others. Perhaps Milner and Kelly not yet learned about that finding. Moreover, one wonders what they would suggest if their recommendation resulted in the wholesale desertion of foster parents afraid of the risks of exposing the children in their custody to one or more family members each week.

Down the road, when families begin to bump up against their ASFA time limits, Milner and Kelly urge states to make use of the statutory exception allowing them not to file for TPR if there is a compelling reason to believe such filing would not be in the best interests of the child. That may be a reasonable prescription in many cases, considering how often this justification is used even in normal times. However, Milner and Kelly go on to anticipate attempts by unnamed nefarious forces to “use the crisis to serve their own interests or those of their constituencies. There will be those whose implicit or even explicit biases are drawn out into the light.” Thus, Milner and Kelly continue the practice of calling anyone who prioritizes the rights of children over those of their parents as racist, as Child Welfare Monitor pointed out in an earlier post.

Milner and Kelly take the opportunity to argue against the ASFA permanency timeline, arguing that it was “more the result of negotiation than what we know about the importance of parent-child relationships, recovery and trauma.” Yes, the ASFA timeline was the result of political forces, but in the opposite way from that claimed by Milner and Kelly. The earlier drafts of AFSA contained shorter timelines for younger children based on what we know about child development. These shorter timelines were eliminated because they would have made the bill impossible to pass.  Milner and Kelly warn that “child development and bonding will be used in arguments not to return children to their parents and to expedite adoptions in instances where families did not have a fair chance.” By denying the importance of bonding instead of acknowledging there is a conflict between two important values, Milner and Kelly betray that their position is based on ideology, not analysis.

Despite their misguided recommendations and hyperbolic statements, Milner and Kelly are right about the threat to timely permanency posed by social distancing and its effects. But they ignore that the social distancing imposed by the coronavirus is having a very different effect on children who have been abused and neglected but are not involved with the foster care system. Although there are strong reasons to believe that abuse and neglect are increasing, reports to child abuse hotlines are down as much as 50 percent around the country because children are not seeing the adults who usually report concerns about child maltreatment, especially school and medical personnel.  This crisis has drawn considerable media attention, as Child Welfare Monitor has described, and states and nonprofits have taken action to publicize the signs of child abuse and urge teachers who see children online and other workers who see children in person to be alert for the signs and ready to report to child protective services hotlines. But even during Child Abuse Prevention Month, Milner and Kelly have nothing to say about this issue and have issued no guidance for states and counties.  It is obvious that their minds are elsewhere.

Two of the major goals of child welfare–safety and permanency–are often in conflict. It takes wise leadership to navigate the narrow channel between endangering and separating them from the parents they love. Sadly, we are not blessed with such leadership on the federal level in these troubled times.

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