Foster parent Mitzi Monson feels lucky she can stay at home.
Yet since the coronavirus closed schools, Monson has had few breaks from the three children in her care. At least extra money from the state’s foster care agency, awarded since the start of the pandemic, helps pay for groceries.
Monson keeps a consistent schedule for the kids: three meals a day, in bed by 9 p.m., up by 8 a.m. They spend 90 minutes a day going to school through video conference, and the rest of the day on less conventional lessons, like skipping stones and putting up a hummingbird feeder.
Her kids all have special needs and individualized education plans at school. Learning from home has been easier because it avoids social interactions that can be difficult for them.
But some things are harder. Summer camp plans are up in the air, so brand-new sleeping bags might go unused. And now that social distancing is in effect, her kids see their birth families less frequently.
“Their lives have been such chaos, this really isn’t that big a deal. And that’s heartbreaking,” Monson said. “They’re just used to going along with life.”
Through the COVID-19 lockdown, foster families have faced extra challenges.
Parents and advocates say staying at home has been hard for some kids — but good for others who have trouble in traditional school environments. Therapy, common for foster children, takes place over video calls rather than with toys in offices.
Like all parents, those with foster kids can struggle with working from home while taking care of children. But foster children, who come from the havoc of unstable families and then get handed off to strangers, often need even more attention.
And as Kansas opens up from its coronavirus lockdown, the foster system braces for a possible surge in reports of child abuse, an even greater shortage of foster parents and the unknown consequences of pandemic trauma.
Schools and families had little time to prepare for that, said Pamela Cornwell, clinical director a St. Francis Ministries, one of the state’s largest private foster care contractors.
“Kids know that something big has happened,” she said. “There will be some children that will have significant traumatic effect from this.”
Many children now fear that their families — biological or foster — could die from the coronavirus, said Kay Heikes, a child and family therapist who works with children in foster care. She typically conducts therapy through playing with toys in her office, but she has had to find substitutes now that she sees clients through videoconference. She and the children play games by drawing on whiteboards and telling stories with puppets through the screen.
The abrupt end to school has also contributed to a sense of uncertainty among children whose lives were already filled with disruptions and separations, she said.
“Now there’s a big question of, ‘Is the world safe?’” Heikes said. “It’ll take much longer for children to come around … much longer than adults.”
For many parents, the challenges of raising foster children have been exacerbated by working from home, the closure of day care centers and the pandemic’s other drastic changes to daily life.
Foster parents can request and receive respite if they need it — a night or weekend during which other families volunteer to take care of foster children. But it’s been harder to find people willing to offer respite care now, Cornwell said.
Foster parents say there’s also been a drop in people willing to become parents at all. Jonathan Stahl, a foster parent who trains families, said fewer people are showing up to training — now conducted online rather than in person.
“People are stressed out,” Stahl said. “They’re, like, ‘This is the last thing I want to think about, adding one more person to what’s going on right now.’”
Pamela Robbins, executive director of the Kansas Foster and Adoptive Parent Association, helps conduct support groups for foster parents. She said single parents have told her the pandemic has been especially hard on them.
“They have no or very little in-person support,” she said. “Some of the stories were just heartwrenching.”
One single mother has had to take care of a child with high medical and behavioral needs without help from health care providers because all of the boy’s appointments had been canceled. Another said she had trouble going to the grocery store because she had no one to leave her kids with. Many parents in rural areas, Robbins said, don’t have the luxury of grocery delivery.
She said many new parents who signed up for virtual training dropped after just a few sessions.
Foster parents worry that a lack of people training right now could lead to a shortage of parents in the future, especially once the pandemic slows down, children return to school and reports of child abuse and neglect spike.
Typically, reports to state child welfare services decline in the summer, when children aren’t in school, and rise in the fall. Reports have gone down during the state’s COVID lockdown as well.
For the week of April 19-25, the Kansas Department for Children and Families received an average of 149 child welfare reports on weekdays. The week before, the weekday average was 137 — lower than 200, the daily average for fiscal year 2019.
That’s not because there’s less child abuse, Robbins said. In fact, it may happen more frequently because children are stuck at home with families who are stressed about losing their jobs and social connections.
“They’re not in daycares, they’re not in programming, they’re not out in the community. A lot of them aren’t even out in their neighborhoods,” Robbins said. “So the things that would be reported and seen by others aren’t being seen or reported.”
Nomin Ujiyediin reports on criminal justice and social welfare for the Kansas News Service. You can email her at nomin (at) kcur (dot) org and follow her on Twitter @NominUJ.
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