Foster Care Sees Additional Strain Under Coronavirus Pandemic

Two hands holding a paper cutout of a family
County and private foster care systems are struggling to find enough foster families to meet the need. [Africa Studio / Shutterstock]
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The coronavirus pandemic is putting additional stress on Ohio’s already-strained foster care system, with virus concerns stalling licensing for potential foster parents and the possibility that even more children need homes in the near future.

Foster care systems around the state were already struggling to meet the need for foster families prior to the pandemic, thanks in part to stressors like the opioid crisis. That includes Medina County, where officials were in the middle of training new potential foster families when the virus began to spread.

About 24 families made it halfway through the training process before the county had to put it on hold, said Medina County Jobs and Family Services Director Jeff Felton.

“Halfway through, maybe a little over halfway through, that tells me they’re going to finish out the training, they’re committed to doing it,” Felton said. “And then to have that plug pulled kind of in the middle of everything is just kind of frustrating.”

The 100 children in the county’s care have been placed, Felton said, some with licensed foster families and many sibling groups with relatives. But there is the potential for an influx of new referrals needing placement soon, Felton said.

If that happens, he said, it could take a lot more time to find them a home.

“A lot of the facilities that we work with, and private agencies, have halted taking new placements during this crisis,” Felton said.

County social workers are still primarily out in the field, Felton said. They have to conduct visits to check on children who have been placed, he said, but they are respecting social distancing.

“We still have those duties to discharge,” Felton said. “We cannot, not go and make sure kids are safe.”

Reports of children in need of care have decreased as mandated reporters like school teachers begin working remotely, Felton said.

But more time at home could result in an increased number of referrals later on.

Stressors like job loss and more time at home around children can lead to heightened difficulties with addiction and domestic abuse, said Northeast Ohio Adoption Services (NOAS) Executive Director Cheryl Tarantino.

“It is a problem when kids aren’t in school, that you tend to see an increase in some of the abuse,” Tarantino said. “We do expect to see more kids come into care.”

NOAS has permission from the state to complete education requirements for new foster families virtually during the pandemic, Tarantino said, and the group is also relying on FaceTime and Zoom for site visits.

“Hopefully some of those families that are close to being able to complete their education requirements can do so, so that we can get them licensed and move forward with placement,” she said.

The virtual onsite assessments are also changing to meet the new needs of families in light of the pandemic, Tarantino said. Staff are asking about the family’s needs with regards to job loss, at-home schooling, and financial security.

“What we’re trying to do is provide extra time and attention because of the fact that we can’t actually come to their house and sit down, and have the conversations that they’re used to,” Tarantino said.

The organization is still receiving phone calls about children in need, she said, and is working out methods to place them in new homes. But there aren’t enough families to meet fostering demands and many families are reluctant to start the foster or adoption process during the crisis.

Bellefair Jewish Children’s Bureau already faced additional hurdles in finding families willing to take on children with behavioral health needs, said Executive Director Jeffrey Lox. During the coronavirus pandemic, families who might otherwise take a child in are stretched thin.

“Of all the things they have to consider when we present a child to them under normal circumstances, now they’ve got to say, ‘Even if this child seemed like a good fit for me, with all the additional things going on in my community and in my home, can I still say yes?’” Lox said. “You bet, that’s an additional challenge.”

Bellefaire is still getting referrals for children who need foster care, he said, and working to match those children with families in the state’s foster system. In some cases, relatives are stepping in as a temporary measure, which may not be a long-term solution for everyone but keeps some of the burden off the foster system for now.

“So they’re not in the foster care system per se, but because it’s tough on families right now, they’ve got their sister’s kids, or grandparents are taking care of grandchildren, doing what we call kinship care,” Lox said.

Bellefair is providing its therapeutic services via telehealth during the pandemic, he said, but the stress of the pandemic creates additional difficulties for children who have already experienced trauma.

“Those things compound a children’s reaction to stress, leading to higher levels of anxiety and depression, potential emergence of trauma symptoms,” Lox said.

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