Foster families face additional stress under COVID-19 lockdown

Outside of Hope for Youth’s offices, a Long Island based non-profit child welfare organization. Picture credit to The Long Island Times.

By Niki Nassiri

A foster parent to three kids aged twelve to seventeen, Willard Lin feels like she’s fighting an uphill battle alone during the coronavirus pandemic. The kids are restless — the only way to communicate with their biological mother is through phone calls and Facetime, and their motivation for school is dwindling. Lin, whose job turned virtual on April 3, is struggling to stay on top of all their needs and her own.

Families like Lin’s in the New York foster care system are trying to make sense of a new normal under the coronavirus crisis, with disruptions to day-to-day structure. On April 1, Adoption and Guardianship Program for Everyone (AGAPE), New York’s adoption and foster parent support group organization, stopped meeting in person and made 17 of their programs virtual in a matter of days to help support families. There are at least 3 emergency fundraisers made specifically to support foster care families in New York with items like food and toilet paper.

“On one hand, I don’t want them to agonize over it,” Lin, who has asked to remain anonymous, said. “They have enough on their minds. But some days they are frustrated that they can’t hang out with their friends or go out. That’s an added stress for me.”

Parent support group leaders are doubling their efforts to reach out to foster families by increasing the number of times virtual support groups meet, sending resources through newsletters and making phone calls to parents, said AGAPE Long Island program director Samantha Fuhrman. AGAPE, part of the Adoption and Foster Family Coalition of New York, is concerned with the increased stress many adoptive and foster parents may see in the coronavirus crisis without face-to-face support.

Foster parents like Lin are also finding difficulties and experiencing exhaustion with the new homeschooling routine.

“My kids are older, so they don’t need their hands held, but they do need to be motivated,” Lin said. “Some days I am so busy with my job, I don’t follow up on their school work.” Lin mentioned the absence of additional services like respite care to help parents.

Out of 21 New York foster care agencies, none are providing non-emergency respite care. Respite care is a free childcare service offered to foster parents for a few hours per week depending on the agency.

To help fill in the temporary absence of respite care, Berkshire Farm and Services for Youth, a New York-based non-profit child welfare organization, is leading free Zoom activity sessions for kids. The meetings focus on engaging younger children for around an hour through creative activities. Berkshire’s Zoom meetings are aimed to give parents a short break and kids an opportunity to destress.

“We’ll have a dance party for little kids, or we’ll read a story,” Gloria Moran, director of foster care at Berkshire Farm and Youth Services said. “Whatever it is, just things to keep them busy because otherwise the mind wanders. And these kids have a lot to deal with in their minds.”

Danielle Skelly, a family support specialist for AGAPE, notes parents juggling homeschooling, supporting special needs children and therapy logistics while dealing with their own work or unemployment as a daunting issue for parents.

“A lot of our kids receive occupational therapy and psychotherapy in school, ” Skelly, who is a licensed foster parent and has adopted nine children from foster care, said. “The amount our families have to manage is exponentially more because of the needs of our kids.”

AGAPE’s parent support programs moved online at the beginning of April. To balance the loss of in-person contact, the group increased their program’s meetings from once a month to once a week. AGAPE also reached out to families having technology issues to make sure they could still attend programs.

“A lot of times, our families get a lot of outside support normally to help with our kids,” Samantha Fuhrman, the program director of AGAPE and adoptive mother herself, said. “Now we’re just not getting that. So a big part is just helping parents with their own self-care because parents are now having to do all of that with all of their kids by themselves.”

Hope for Youth, a Long Island-based child welfare non-profit organization, and Berkshire’s non-residential services, like clinical therapy, have been met with mixed results. The two organizations are finding that while some children, especially teenagers, prefer the video or phone calls with clinicians in the comfort of their rooms, others lack a private space to talk in. On warmer days, clinicians from Berkshire have made visits to foster homes to conduct outdoor sessions six feet apart.

The virtual therapy sessions, also called telehealth, are hardest for children around five and under, director of program development at Hope for Youth Kate Travers noted. Their out-patient child-parent psychotherapy program focuses on intervention for children from birth to age five who have had a traumatic experience in their life.

“You could imagine having a three-way Zoom call between a 2-year-old, their mother in another place and then the therapist in another place,” Travers said. “You can only keep the child’s attention for so long.”

Family Services of Westchester held 1,000 therapy sessions through video and phone calls in one week for children and parents alike, a new record for the social service agency.

Another concern is an uptick in child abuse and the consequent rise of new children into foster care. Reports from the Dallas-Fortworth area already show a surge in suspected abuse cases. Social workers fear that abuse could be going underreported since children no longer see their teachers and other adults who could report abuse.

“We don’t know what we’re going to find out until children go back to school,” Travers said.

She also went on to say that some parents may face increased challenges during the pandemic that may hinder their ability to provide adequate childcare, like financial problems and substance abuse issues.

“The after-effects could go on for years,” Travers said.