The last step in the long journey to adopt a child through the foster care system is the courtroom finalization. Though mostly a formality, it’s traditionally provided an important opportunity for loved ones to gather and pose for pictures as a judge blesses the creation of a new “forever family” with a smack of the gavel.
But, like so many other things in the Covid-19 era, this tradition has gone virtual. “We finalized our adoption over the phone,” said Celeste Scott, who last May adopted her three youngest children — who were 4, 5 and 6 when they first came to live with her in the spring of 2019. “We didn’t even do a Zoom. It was kind of anticlimactic.”
Still, Scott, of The Dalles, Ore., knows she is fortunate to have finalized the adoptions at all. If she lived elsewhere in the country, she could very well still be waiting. The pandemic has created new challenges in the foster care system and exacerbated old ones — creating delays in placements and adoptions and forcing some older youth to exit the system amid a public health and economic crisis. The response, moreover, hasn’t been uniform across the country, or nearly fast enough, say child welfare advocates.
“The child welfare system is extremely complex and can vary widely by state, and even by county,” said Celeste Bodner, executive director and founder of FosterClub, an advocacy organization for foster youth. “Each of these systems is navigating the pandemic on its own, meaning the experience of a child in one county can be completely different from the one right next to it.”
Soon after the pandemic took hold, for instance, Florida’s child welfare system began conducting the bulk of the work certifying foster parents and placing children in their homes — including social worker visits, parenting courses, courtroom hearings and much more — remotely. This past June, Florida celebrated its 100th Zoom-based adoption when a judge finalized the adoption of 22-year-old Daisy Gains — helping her avoid “aging out” of the state’s foster care system during a public health and economic crisis.
In New York, however, the system ground to a halt. “For a long while, the courts here were just not doing anything virtually,” said Shantell Lewis, a recruiter with the Wendy’s Wonderful Kids program, which focuses on finding placements for older foster youth, at a Brooklyn nonprofit called MercyFirst. Though New York has more recently allowed work to be conducted virtually, the state has a considerable backlog. “New York has an old-school, antiquated system in some ways. They’ve always been closed to virtual work so it’s been very, very slow moving to adapt.”
States have shown it’s possible to conduct adoptions and foster care placements remotely and effectively but caseworkers say it has made their job considerably more challenging to serve the more than 400,000 children currently in the system.
“Normally, I break the ice with kids over meals and activities in person to help build that trust,” said Edna Green, a caseworker with the Foster & Adoptive Care Coalition in Brentwood, Mo. “It’s essential to have that relationship there in order to move these kids toward permanency.”
Lacking the ability to connect in person, Green has resorted to more creative methods to bond with children, like taking them on virtual “walks” through the park, or the zoo, via video calls.
Still, many caseworkers said complications simply come with the territory when working within the child welfare system. “We’re used to having to get creative,” Green said. “If I can’t get through the front door, I’m going to climb through the back door, kitchen window or through the basement to get these kids where they need to be.”
But not all corners of the foster system have been able to adapt. Many child welfare professionals are also concerned about older youth “emancipating” from foster care, when local governments are no longer bound to provide financial assistance. This abrupt transition into adulthood, between 18 and 21 depending on the state, in the very best of times represents a significant challenge for roughly 20,000 young people each year. But today, those aging out of foster care are aging in to a country gripped by an ongoing pandemic and crippled economy.
“We had reports of former foster youth sleeping in the streets or in cars,” said Bodner. “And that’s if they’re lucky enough to even have a car.”
This past May, FosterClub conducted a small survey of 613 former foster youth, 18 to 24, to understand how the pandemic was affecting young adults with experience in the foster care system. Sixty-five percent of respondents working before the pandemic reported losing their jobs. Another 23 percent said they were experiencing housing insecurity. And only 37 percent said they had an adult to turn to.
“When a young person ages out of the system, we have in many ways already failed them,” said Rita Soronen, president and chief executive of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. “But this is even more true right now — there’s nothing like a crisis to show how truly vulnerable this group of young people are as they transition to adulthood.”
Davita Short aged out of Indiana’s foster care system, which she’s been in since the age of 12, this past August after she turned 21. In March, after the dorms shut down at Vincennes University, where she is enrolled, her former foster family invited her to return. In September, she found a job at a local grocery store, which — along with a $5,000 voucher from a federal program — has allowed her to move into an apartment.
Still, Short’s financial situation remains precarious. She will exhaust the funds in her housing voucher in February and worries about the stability of her job. “I’d feel more secure if I could be in the dorms,” she said, which are cheaper than her private housing. “I’m not sure how I’m supposed to juggle all this and also work and go to school full time.”
Former foster youth who were relatively stable before the pandemic have found their circumstances rapidly deteriorated during this crisis. Jaxx Saunders, now 20, aged out of Montana’s foster care system nearly two years ago. Saunders, who identifies as nonbinary, said their initial transition out of foster care was smooth — they moved into an apartment with their partner, enrolled in the University of Montana as a pre-med student and found work at a movie theater.
Once Montana entered a lockdown in spring, however, Saunders quickly lost the job. Though Saunders’s partner remained employed, the pair could no longer afford rent, and they both moved out.
“We’ve just kind of been couch-hopping for the last few months,” Saunders said. “Which isn’t great with Covid, since I’m immunocompromised. It’s all been pretty devastating on my mental health, having to worry about finding money just to feed myself.”
Some states, like California and Ohio, were quick to implement policies to prevent youth from aging out of the system for the duration of the pandemic — and allow those who have recently aged out to opt back in. But many other states have not, leaving youth to fend for themselves.
Limited emergency relief, pushed by advocates for months, was included in the latest round of stimulus funding recently passed by Congress. The bill provides an additional $400 million to help former foster youth with tuition and housing and push the age of eligibility to 26. It will also implement a nationwide moratorium on aging out of the foster care system during the pandemic.
“We need to act,” said Representative Danny K. Davis, Democrat of Illinois, one of the bill’s main sponsors. “Or we’re going to lose many of these young people.”
Another top concern for foster care advocates — the lack of certified foster care parents — predates Covid-19, but has become even more acute during the crisis. “Parents understandably can’t have people coming in and out of their homes right now,” said Grace Lindgren, a recruiter with Helping Hand Home for Children, based in Austin, Texas. “A lot of foster parents have other kids or vulnerable family members they need to be thinking about right now.”
Many foster parents who might otherwise accept a placement are not able to do so because of the pandemic’s economic fallout. Last January, Jennifer Anderson, a certified foster parent in Texas, was close to finalizing the adoption of Maddie, a 13-year-old girl, when she suddenly lost her job. Like millions of other unemployed Americans, she has been unable to find permanent work since — putting Maddie’s adoption, and Anderson’s ability to continue fostering youth, on hold indefinitely.
“Until I have income they can put in my home study that shows I have a steady job, there’s not much I can do,” Anderson said.
All the more reason, said Soronen, for those interested, and in a position to do so, to join the ranks of certified foster care households. “If you’ve been considering becoming a foster parent, now is the time,” Soronen said. She suggested a visit to her organization’s website to learn more. “Whether it be a global pandemic, natural disaster, or anything else, a crisis is no excuse to forget the moral and legal obligation we have to help these kids.”
David Dodge is a freelance writer focusing on L.G.B.T.Q. issues and non-traditional families.