By Carson Kessler and Currie Engel
Roman Prokopchuk and his wife, Lindsay, welcomed their most recent foster child three days before the nation went into shutdown due to COVID-19. With four foster children under the age of seven from three different biological families, the Prokopchuks have their hands—and house—full.
At their Ewing, New Jersey home, the Prokopchuks rely on a structured routine— an attempt, Roman said, to establish some security and consistency in the children’s already chaotic lives. Only the eldest, a 6-year-old, is in school, and one of the younger children has special needs. But even the structure is challenging to maintain now.
After the first rumblings from the children’s bedrooms at 5:30a.m. come hours of phone and video calls with biological parents, caseworkers, lawyers, and court appointed special advocates. Under pandemic lockdown, phones, audio speakers and computer screens have replaced the usual in-person meetings. For the Prokopchuks, these meetings can take more than 20 hours a week to complete, and sometimes, parents and caseworkers don’t show up.
From caseworker and biological family meetings, to legal procedures, to schooling, financial stability, and mental health concerns, the country-wide lockdown has proven incredibly difficult for many foster parents, like the Prokopchuks, and children in the system.
“This coronavirus and then obviously by extension, the shelter in place mandates, have affected almost every aspect of child welfare and juvenile justice,” said Erin McGuinness, senior policy analyst at Children’s Rights.
In the foster care system, every child is assigned their own caseworker— someone whose job it is to check in regularly to ensure the child’s safety, health, and general well-being. Under normal circumstances, caseworkers are legally required to visit their charges at least once a month, but often this number is higher depending on the child’s needs.
Now, in the tri-state area, these in-person visits are impossible. Instead, the meetings have gone virtual. But some families, like the Prokopchuks, have even experienced difficulty in getting proper virtual caseworker visits. McGuinness said that this drop-off in visits is one of the biggest concerns that child advocates have.
“Caseworkers visiting with children is always one of the fundamental core elements for children in foster care,” McGuinness said. “Their social workers are their lifeline, and if their needs aren’t being met or safety is concerned, that’s the person that sees it and flags it.”
Couple this with the sometimes difficult task of obtaining access to proper devices, and arranging visits, even virtual ones, become more complicated.
“If children don’t have access to the Internet or to a device that is capable of video conferencing, then transition to a video virtual visit is impossible and will therefore not occur,” McGuinness explained.
Virtual visits can be hit or miss. For the Prokopchuk family, some of the children’s case workers have remained attentive and present, while others seem to have gone silent. Propokchuk explained how crucial good communication between foster families and caseworkers can be, especially in times like these.
Soon after the shutdown began, all four of the Prokopchuk foster children came down with low grade fevers at the same time. The family was worried. They tried to get tested for COVID-19, but hospitals refused to admit them. Instead, the Prokopchuks and their four foster children drove to a COVID-19 test center to have all of them tested.
No word or help came from the children’s caseworkers. “One of which we haven’t spoken to in two weeks,” Prokopchuk said.
Luckily, the children tested negative for COVID-19, but nevertheless, the family was shaken up and the children were scared.
Others in the system, however, have had better experiences with caseworkers. Across the Hudson in New York City, a 56-year-old foster parent in Harlem, who just recently recovered from COVID-19, has been self-isolating in her apartment with her foster daughter, who is 10.
The woman, who wants to remain anonymous to protect the child’s sensitive situation, said she has received a lot of assistance from New York Foundling, one of the city’s largest child welfare non-profit agencies—especially after she contracted COVID-19 as an essential worker. “When I told my case planner I had the virus, so many calls came in,” she recalled.
She said she received daily calls from medical providers and case workers who wanted to ensure both she and the foster child were taken care of as she recovered from the virus. Her case planner even went so far as to travel from Brooklyn to ensure the foster child had a refill of her medication since the foster mother couldn’t leave the house.
The Garver family in upstate New York, who is trying to adopt Crystal, an 18-year-old girl from Texas, also said the girl’s caseworkers and lawyers have been extremely attentive in helping them with the complicated cross-state adoption process.
“The dedication that you see from these people and these teams is a little astounding,” said Brian Garver. “They’re doing all of this just for this one girl.”
The Garvers are currently in the process of adopting Crystal, who is aging out of the foster care system. Crystal originally intended to move in with the Garvers after graduating in June, but because of the virus she got stuck in New York on a visit to the family in March, unable to return back to her previous foster placement in Texas.
Crystal says that not being able to see her siblings in Texas has been the most difficult part of her unexpectedly early transition to the Garver household. “I mean being away from them is hard, but the really good part is that I can restart myself,” she said.
And the new foster family is trying to help make that happen. While quarantined together, the family are moving forward with the adoption process. Yet, despite the attentiveness, the court process has been painstakingly slow— even in New York where state courts have been able to transition to virtual hearings.
“This is brand new for a lot of people and because our case is so unique, it’s been horrifically slow,” Garver explained. “COVID has just made that worse.”
Some courts have been able to transition to virtual hearings to ease the problems caused by the pandemic.
The New York City Family Court, for example, closed its courthouse doors on March 26 “to reduce the risk of transmission of the coronavirus,” but has since been operating completely via “video and telephonic connection among parties, attorneys, jurists and staff to adjudicate essential and emergency matters.”
But court suspensions, delays and closures can impact the health and safety of foster children. For those needing to be removed from a foster home or relocated, the difficulty of connecting with attorneys and getting a court date is a big problem.
Children who have already gone through the court to finish adoption or family reunification legal legwork might not be able to complete the process, further complicating and adding difficulties to foster families and the children.
Another source of stress and anxiety for foster children, according to child advocates: biological families have also had to resort to virtual visits with their children.
“You add in this pandemic where children are going to be scared and you’re removing an element of their social development,” McGuinness said. “There’s all this uncertainty and all these other limitations that have been placed on their ability to interact with the family members that have been in their lives.”
Because laws differ state-by-state, rulings on parental visits vary. Yet, these interactions are an incredibly important part of the system, said Allison Green, a legal director at the National Association of Counsel for Children, who feels that instead of blanket decisions banning children from seeing their families, decisions should take into account each child’s circumstance— whether they live with other relatives or if they are educated on proper social distancing measures.
“Even in an emergency, we have a responsibility to do individual, case-by-case decisions for everybody,” Green explained.
The pandemic has brought on another challenge. With schools closed, foster parents have to pick up the slack as schools also go virtual. Lindsay Prokopchuk, for example, spends her afternoons trying to provide enrichment for their four boys, including the kindergartner.
For the Garvers, helping Crystal finish classwork so she can graduate from her high school in Texas has been difficult. Brian spends at least an hour helping Crystal every day, and Beth lends a hand when she can. Both Brian and Beth have tried to communicate with her teachers, but often get delayed responses, or none at all.
Dr. John DeGarmo, a foster parent who routinely speaks about the foster care system, explained that kids in the foster system are generally a year and a half behind in school already. They might need extra help with assignments from teachers— an additional job now taken on by foster parents, many of whom are also juggling other kids and a full-time job.
Take the Harlem foster mother, who is an essential worker. The transition to having her foster daughter at home all day instead of school has been bumpy. “Our two-bedroom apartment is close quarters for a child who is used to going to school,” the foster mother said. “At a time like this, you really appreciate the teachers because you have no idea how important school is.”
Teachers are mandated by law to report any suspected child neglect or abuse to Child Protective Services, but the shut down has resulted in a drop in those calls in some states, concerning advocates because it might mean that these children are not being checked upon as frequently as in the past. Virgina, Texas, and Illinois have recently recorded fewer such calls, for example. Nationwide, educators make up 20 percent of reports to Child Protective services.
“The precipitous decline in calls to CPS hotlines across the country reflects diminished contact with children by mandated reporters,” Amy Harfeld, national policy director at Children’s Advocacy Institute, writes in an email to NY City Lens. “According to known risk factors for abuse, actual rates of maltreatment during this pandemic are likely to have increased.”
Millions of Americans have lost jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic and employment projections for the future are less than optimistic. The pandemic has also complicated economic realities for foster families, forcing them to tighten their budgets even more.
Some families with parents who are essential workers simply don’t have the money to pay for childcare, said Irene Clements, executive director of the National Foster Parent Association.
Recently, she’s heard from two foster parents who are essential workers, and have had their hours cut, but still need help caring for the children when they’re away from home. Like many foster parents, Clements said, “they’re begging for funding to pay for it because that’s not something that’s in their budget.”
After filing paperwork to get childcare, which is generally available to foster parents through the state, both parents were denied on the grounds that they didn’t work 40 hours during those two weeks. “They’re desperate,” Clements added.
Another concern child advocates have right now is the fear that an increase in financial instability will lead to even more children entering the foster care system. According to McGuinness of Children’s Rights, nearly 60 percent of children go into foster care as a result of poverty-related reasons. This dilemma has the potential to be exacerbated by the current crisis.
“We want to make sure that now more than ever, because we know that the amount of families experiencing poverty has increased and probably will continue to increase, that we are not criminalizing poverty,” McGuinness said. “And that we are not removing children into foster care purely because the family is experiencing poverty.”
It may be too early to measure the pandemic’s impact on vulnerable families. So far, reports from agencies show the number of children in foster care has remained constant.
Advocates also worry that the impact of coronavirus—the instability, extra mouths to feed, and the stress—may prompt many foster parents to drop out of the foster system entirely, further straining it. “Foster parents are saying how much longer? When can I get the help I need? When can I get the support I need?” said DeGarmo, adding that some agencies have tried to help anxious foster families through this time by offering online support, webinars, and other resources.
Many foster youth make the transition to college life, but now due to the pandemic, with universities suspended and dorms closed, these young adults have no choice but to return to foster care, something they felt they had left behind for good.
“In a time when dorms and group homes can’t account for social distancing protocols, we need to be making sure that children aren’t unnecessarily displaced without access to resources and services and people,” said McGuinness.
In some states, foster youth age out of the system as soon as they hit 18. But how do foster youth about to age out of the system navigate the uncertainty presented by the pandemic?
Unfortunately, many may end up homeless, said McGuinness. The National Foster Youth Institute reports that one in four youths aging out of the system will become homeless within four years.
“For some of those young people, it feels like they’ve taken 10 steps back in their own development and in their journey towards independence,” Georgia Boothe of Children’s Aid in New York City, said.
Life in the pandemic with four foster boys has taken some getting used to, but the Prokopchuks say that they would do it all over again. They’re old hands at this. Since becoming licensed foster parents in 2018, the Prokopchuks have opened up their home to 20 foster children.
“It all comes down to there being around 700,000 foster kids in the system in the U.S.” Prokopchuk added. “I’m just trying to do as much good and impact kids regardless of what the national or global situation is.”
The family is looking forward to opening up their home yet again when the pandemic subsides.
“You learn everything about these kids and you want to spend as much time as possible,” Prokopchuk said of fostering during the coronavirus crisis. “I’ve learned patience and what’s important and what’s not. It’s just added perspective.”