How has the COVID-19 epidemic impacted children in foster care?

In March when the state of Illinois shut down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, family courts that oversee child welfare cases were closed for three months and all in-person visits for children in foster care were prohibited by DCFS. Visits resumed in the summer, but the impact on the emotional health of parents and children was significant.

Generous donors provided funds to provide activity kits for some of our families to keep children engaged and learning.

“Three months is a long time for a parent to go without seeing their child, especially babies,” says Allison Kipphut, Children’s Home & Aid’s Director of Family Centered Services, who oversees our foster care program. “We know how important face-to-face contact is for bonding. It is just not the same over Zoom and it can impact attachment and cause the parent to lose hope that they will ever get their child back.”

Most children come into foster care due to neglect, often stemming from family struggles with poverty, mental health issues, or substance abuse. Having their children removed is a powerful catalyst for parents to change. But the delays due to the court shutdown impacts parents’ confidence and determination to heal.

And for the thousands of Illinois children and families in the state’s already overloaded child welfare system, the shelter-in place order has also meant delays and frustration.

“There were long delays in court processing of child welfare cases before the shutdown, but it’s become so much worse now,” says Allison. “Courts did reopen in a limited way in June, but the backlog is tremendous and so children are staying in foster care longer.”

Allison shares a story of a group of five siblings who had been placed in the care of a relative when their biological parents were unable to care for them.

Children’s Home & Aid caseworkers conducted foster family visits outdoors during the pandemic.

“These children had been in foster care for two and a half years, and were ready to be adopted by their relative foster care parent,” says Allison. “They had a court hearing scheduled for March that would be an important step on their path toward having the peace and stability of a permanent family.”

Then COVID hit. The courts shut down, and the children’s case remains in limbo.

“These are young children who have been in foster care for almost three years, and now there is no end in sight,” says Allison. “It is a disservice to the children who have a right to normalcy.”

Children’s Home & Aid is one of the larger providers of foster care services in Illinois with nearly 1,000 children in our foster care program across Illinois. When the COVID-19 restrictions hit, our staff immediately began developing plans for supporting these vulnerable children and parents and finding ways to keep families connected.

“We got really creative very quickly,” says Allison. “We found new ways to help parents and foster families stay connected through video visits and other technology, funded by generous donations.”

Six months into the pandemic, some of the restrictions have eased. In person visits have resumed. Caseworkers can see children and families in their homes or in our offices, with masks and social distancing in place.

Foster parents worked hard to keep children engaged during the COVID quarantine , including hosting indoor dance parties.

Still, the delays linger. Allison and her team of dedicated workers continue to find ways to support the children and families they work with every day.

“What keeps me and my team going is knowing that we are these children’s and families’ voice in an overwhelming system. Our goal is to get kids into a permanent situation, which is what they all want.”