The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc across practically every segment of life in the U.S., and foster care — already a system troubled by problems — is suffering. While many states are seeing a crisis in capacity, Texas appears to be particularly hard hit, with more than 200 foster kids sleeping in the offices of Child Protective Services because there are no beds for them in private or group homes.
According to data from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS), reported on KXAN Texas, 237 kids spent two or more nights sleeping in DFPS office in March 2021. That is up nearly sevenfold since before the coronavirus began to spread in Texas communities; in February 2020, that number was only 34.
A spokesperson for DFPS told KXAN that foster care providers have been “profoundly affected by the pandemic and more recently by February’s winter storm.” They explained DFPS has struggled to recruit and train foster families willing to open their homes, while residential treatment centers have had problems retaining qualified staff.
In short, there aren’t enough beds to accommodate every child entering the foster care system in Texas. Many of the kids sleeping in the DFPS offices are older teens who have complex behavioral or psychological needs, and therefore need specialized care, according to DFPS. It is always more difficult to find placement for these teens, and it has been ever more so during the pandemic.
Problems with the Texas foster care system date back to before the pandemic, however. “A decades-long federal lawsuit has drawn attention to stories of abuse, neglect and mounting caseload sizes,” KXAN reported.
Debbie Sceroler, Senior Director for foster care and adoption at Bucker Children and Family Services, which recruits and licenses foster homes in Texas, told KXAN that the pandemic couldn’t have come at a worse time, with the foster care system already in this “state of reform.”
In December 2020, NBC reported on the effects of the pandemic on the foster care nationwide noting that the system had been especially overwhelmed with “experts and state agencies saying more children are entering the system, and fewer families are willing to take them in for fear of spreading COVID-19.”
According to the NBC report, Chicago had seen a 33 percent increase in the number of children in foster care. “In Texas, children in foster care have reportedly contracted COVID-19 at nearly double the rate of the general population,” the article said. “And, in Los Angeles, kids in foster care are severely affected by learning loss.
“We’ve had kids that, during the pandemic, have been shuttled from foster placement to foster placement,” Lyndsey C. Wilson, CEO of First Star, a national nonprofit that supports children in foster care, told NBC. “Not for the child’s fault, but because the caregivers are concerned about COVID.”
An NPR report last month detailed the issues in Erie County, N.Y., where even in a “normal” year the foster care system faces shortages.
“There are some 900 children in foster care, but only about 150 certified foster parents and 140 adoptions each year,” the article noted. “Now add a pandemic, and the answer to finding forever homes for these kids becomes even more difficult.”
“This year has been especially hard with a pandemic,” Lisa Noonan with Erie County Social Services told NPR. “Even certified foster homes are hesitant to take kids coming into care, because you might have an issue in your family with somebody you don’t want to get sick. And we don’t know a lot about the kids when they’re coming into foster care a lot of the time and what they’ve been exposed to when CPS becomes involved.”
The pandemic also derailed the road to reunification between parents and their kids who had been placed in the foster care system, as case workers and the courts were unable to proceed with their usual procedures. A recent assessment by The Marshall Project revealed that many parents with kids in foster care have struggled with virtual family visits and maintaining the bonds necessary to be reunited with their children.
Even as the United States begins to return to normalcy, it may be time to restructure or even abolish the foster care system. “After three and a half years of foster parenting, I have gone from being a strong advocate for that system to questioning its existence — to being in favor of burning the whole thing down,” Hayley Deroche wrote in an article about the issue for SheKnows.
“This system disproportionately catches more Black and brown children in its nets,” Deroche argues. “Then, it elevates the opinions of volunteers like CASA workers who are overwhelmingly white, privileged women who cannot — any more than any of us can — be without implicit bias. Then, it creates benchmarks based on unjust timelines that parents cannot reasonably meet if they are battling addiction, which is an ever-increasing reason for removing children from their parents in the first place. Then, it subjects children to a system that often leads to homelessness or imprisonment.”
One child who may have been failed, fatally, by the foster care system, is Ma’Khia Bryant, the 16-year-old girl shot and killed by Ohio police last month while wielding a knife.
“The story of how Ma’Khia Bryant was placed in foster care and remained in foster care for what we believe was too long, will unfold,” said Michelle Martin, the lawyer for Ma’Khia’s family.
Whether the foster care system is changed drastically or helped along to get through this tough time, it’s clear that something needs to happen soon. All children deserve homes and love.