Protecting Our Most Vulnerable Kids

How COVID-19 Uniquely Affects Children in Foster Care

By Susanna Kniffen

April 15, 2020

In the midst of COVID-19 school closures and “stay at home” orders, California’s vulnerable children and youth are at even greater risk. For example, during this time, children and youth in foster care can face greater placement instability. Stable placements with nurturing caregivers are integral to helping foster youth heal from prior abuse and neglect. However, caregivers across the state are struggling to meet the needs of the children and youth in their care while also coping with sheltering-in orders, closed schools, and severely limited access to critical supports such as physical and mental health services. These stressors, paired with lost income and feelings of isolation, threaten stable homes for foster children and youth.

In addition, children and youth in foster care face obstacles to maintaining important family relationships and reuniting with their parents. Due to restrictions on in-person visits and lack of access to videoconferencing technology, foster youth face challenges to maintaining bonds with siblings, grandparents, and other caring adults in their lives. Similarly, parents working toward reunification with their children may be unable to engage in the activities required by their case plans, including face-to-face visits with their children. The inability to preserve family relationships and continue reunification efforts is deeply detrimental to the well-being of children who have already suffered significant trauma and loss in their lives.

Young people ages 18 to 21 in extended foster care are also navigating increasingly tenuous conditions, often without the support of family or other caring adults. Many foster youth abruptly lost their source of stable housing when universities and colleges closed their campuses. Unlike other students who can return home to their families, young people in extended foster care are scrambling to find off-campus housing on short notice and, if they are unable to do so, may face decisions to stay in crowded emergency homeless shelters or worse. Even when virtual or online instruction is offered, these students face educational setbacks because they often lack the technology needed (i.e., laptops and internet access) to livestream classes, complete assignments, and earn credits toward graduation. Additionally, like many young people, foster youth generally work in entry-level jobs, and an illness, reduction in hours, or loss of a job can be devastating for foster youth who are already living paycheck to paycheck and do not have a support system to fall back on. Extended foster care is critical for foster youth at a time when these resources and supports are needed more than ever.

While schools and child care centers are shuttered and families are ordered to stay home, we do not know how many children are living in tense and volatile households or enduring abuse and neglect. Unfortunately, history tells a sobering story. Abuse and neglect often skyrocket during economic downturns and disasters. During the current pandemic, the risk of abuse and neglect is likely compounded because families are isolated and unable to access critical supports to help them cope with the many stressors they are facing. As regular in-person contact with children and families diminishes, frequent safety checks with at-risk families via phone or videoconferencing becomes vital.

The state is legally responsible for meeting the needs of children and youth in foster care and, in these uncertain times, must take immediate actions on their behalf, including:

  • Maintaining efforts to implement the Family Urgent Response System’s statewide hotline so current and former foster youth and caregivers can immediately access trauma-informed supports during moments of instability;
  • Providing emergency financial relief to caregivers and youth impacted by COVID-19;
  • Prioritizing the stability of foster care placements;
  • Continuing reunification efforts for families and their children in foster care;
  • Ensuring that the unique needs of foster children and youth are considered and addressed in the context of distance learning, telehealth, and family visits; and
  • Ensuring young people in extended foster care can remain in the program and are able to access associated services and supports.

No one will be left unscathed by this unprecedented public health crisis, but we must ensure that vulnerable foster children and youth, and their caregivers have the supports they need to survive and recover from this harrowing time.

Take Action to Ensure that Children are Prioritized in the 2020-21 State Budget