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Coronavirus Is Keeping Foster Children Apart From Their Birth Parents

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(Stock photo by Daniel Guimarães via Flickr Creative Commons)
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FaceTime, Skype, Zoom — that’s how children in L.A. County’s foster care system talk to their biological parents now that visitations have been suspended during the pandemic.

In the case of one mom who lives at a residential facility, she can’t get online to see her 5-year-old daughter.

The pair went from having three in-person visits weekly to talking on the phone, said Connie Chung Joe, executive director of Korean American Family Services, which runs a foster care program for Asian American children in L.A.

It’s taking an emotional toll.

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“Parents were really frustrated,” Joe said. “They really missed physically seeing their children face-to-face. They missed holding them and touching them.”

SEPARATION COULD BE EXTENDED

It’s been more than two weeks since the county court overseeing child neglect and abuse cases suspended in-person visitations to minimize the spread of COVID-19.

The court order, issued by Judge Victor Greenberg of Los Angeles Superior Court, is set to expire April 16. But Joe expects an extension and maybe weeks more of separations.

“You have to balance foster youth’s desire for face-to-face contact with individuals that are important in their lives, to the risks involved in the virus and exposure to the virus,” said Bruce Saltzer, executive director of the Association of Community Human Services Agencies, which represents foster care agencies.

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Joe, from Korean American Family Services, said on the one hand she is relieved that her agency’s social workers don’t have to supervise visitations and potentially put themselves in harm’s way.

But Joe said it was hard to know that foster children are unable to seek comfort from being with their birth parents at a time when they are also experiencing stress from being quarantined and away from friends.

“So that’s really heartbreaking to think that kids are losing that opportunity to see their parents,” Joe said. “And that it could be months before they see their parents again.”

For the youngest cohort of foster children — ages 0 to 5 — spending time with their birth parents is critical to establishing a bond, Joe said. For that reason, the California Department of Social Services is recommending face-to-face meetings between parents and children under 2 when possible.

The foster care system operates on the principle that children should be reunited with their biological parents if they can satisfy the courts that they are meeting certain conditions like, for example, completing drug treatment or taking parenting education classes.

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But Joe said the pandemic is making it hard for some parents to fulfill their court requirements, which could stretch out separations from their children even longer.

The list of stressors caused by the health crisis goes on. Saltzer, from the Association of Community Human Services Agencies, said the foster care system is bracing for when large numbers of workers at residential facilities start to call out sick.

“There's going to be a challenge to maintain the level of staffing that will be required for supervision,” Saltzer said.

Saltzer said the county potentially could send in some people to even out the staff-to-children ratios. Meaning more new faces for the residents -- and yet another change to contend with.

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