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These Parents Risk Losing Custody Forever If They Can’t Bond With Their Babies on Zoom

Trying to connect safely with family members outside of our immediate households has been a challenge for everyone during the coronavirus pandemic, but for parents whose children have been placed in foster care, the experience has been heartbreaking. With quarantines in place for everyone’s safety, parents who would normally be entitled to supervised, in-person visits had to settle for time with their children moved to Zoom-like chats. In many cases, these moms and dads have been trying hard to fix the issues that led to their children being removed from their homes, and desperately want to maintain a bond with their kids — and need to do so in order to win them back — but these virtual visits have left a lot of them worried that their kids were forgetting about them.

Recently, The Marshall Project tried to assess how parents with kids in the foster care system were experiencing virtual family visits. The nonprofit news organization, which is focused on the state of the U.S. criminal justice system, posted questions on national listservs of family court lawyers and received dozens of responses, overwhelmingly negative, from both advocates for parents and children. While non-pandemic visits would have allowed hugging, playing, and, in the case of newborns, breastfeeding, these parents and kids have primarily had to communicate via a video screen, which is not ideal for kids, as any remote-schooling parent knows.

“It’s just impossible to bond with her over the screen. Ever since, I’ve been asking basically, ‘Can I hold my daughter?’” M., a mother whose baby has been in foster care since she was born, told the organization. “It is making me start to doubt my self-worth as a mother.”

Though M., a community college student, has been working hard to get her life ready for a child (her baby’s birth came as a surprise), she could tell the girl is bonding instead with her foster mother while separated from her by a screen.

“Babies and toddlers already have a hard time sitting still, lawyers and parents said, and on video calls, they are easily distracted,” shared The Marshall Project of the feedback it received. “The children are often so young they can’t even grasp that the person on the screen is their parent.” (For more stories from parents with kids in foster care, check out The Marshall Project’s recent article.)

Responses from advocates said parents would rattle noisemakers to try to get their baby’s attention on the screen; others would just repeated to their kids, “We’re still here. We still love you.” But distance parenting for a Zoom session isn’t the same as physical, in-person connection, something we have all realized more acutely during the last year.

“The science is clear that touch and smell are crucial for parent-child bonding,” wrote The Marshall Project. “Babies can lose their mental image of their parents within weeks of being separated, which stalls brain development, according to pediatricians and child social workers. A pretend hug over video, research shows, is essentially unrecognizable as a hug to an infant.”

That bonding isn’t just necessary for the child’s well-being, but also for the chances that the family will be reunited. “Judges look for evidence of bonding when deciding whether to reunify families,” explains The Marshall Project. “If parents can’t persuade the judge that they have connected with their kids over Zoom, their chances of getting their child back fade.”

Though in-person visits between parents and kids in foster care have started to resume across the country, many of these moms and dads are low-income individuals who are essential workers, use public transportation and often live with large extended families, making it difficult for them to meet quarantine requirements to see their kids in person. When in-person family court hearings pick up again, The Marshall Project and other advocates for families in the foster care system worry that many parents’ rights to their children may be permanently terminated. There is no national data yet to show whether that is already happening at high rates, however.

As Judge Aurora Martinez Jones, a family court judge in Austin, Texas, said, “We may have a generation of children who could not reconnect with their parents because of this pandemic.”

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