Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., are easing some restrictions and rules placed on foster parents and foster children during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A News4 I-Team review found a series of safety precautions were ordered at the beginning of the crisis and have complicated the lives and work of foster families and the social service professionals who administer the system.
Throughout the D.C.-region, social services agencies have restricted or limited in-person visits between foster care children and their biological parents to reduce the risk of virus spread, further straining the mental health and emotional well-being of those children.
“There’s nothing like an in-person visit with a child and his or her parents,” said D.C. Child and Family Services administrator Brenda Donald. “You miss that touch.”
D.C. and Virginia child services officials said they shifted to “virtual” visits between child and biological parents and caseworkers for months, during the pandemic.
“While it is critical that caseworkers continue to ensure the well-being of children in care, that imperative must be balanced against the health of workers, children in care and all of the people with whom they come into contact,” a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Social Services said.
The Maryland Department of Human Services added an additional restriction, restricting the transfer of foster children from out of state for placement with Maryland families between March and August, the I-Team found. Organizations representing local foster families said the restrictions helped reduce the risk of virus spread into Maryland from out-of-state hotspots.
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But the restrictions also slowed the placement of children with willing parents, said Sean Hayes of Clarksburg. Hayes had been attempting to complete the process of becoming a foster family for his younger sister, who had been shuffled through the foster care system in South Dakota. Hayes said the shutdown of the interstate transfer allowed his sister, 15-year-old Arnita, to languish in the foster care system in South Dakota and stalled his efforts to finalize the foster care process.
“She never had the opportunity to grow up and have a family,” Hayes said. “She had been in 25 different placements over the years.”
Hayes said the five-month wait for Maryland to resume out-of-state foster placements was “anguishing.”
Unwilling to wait for the state to resume transfer, Hayes worked with a Native American court in South Dakota to secure Arnita’s transfer to Maryland, because Arnita is also Native American.
Virginia social services officials said the state did not restrict out-of-state transfers of foster children. The DC Child and Family Services Agency has continued out-of-state placements during the pandemic as well.
Court closures and restrictions have also complicated the process of becoming – or continuing as – a foster parent.
“It’s been a challenge like I’ve never encountered,” said Arnie Eby, a longtime foster parent who has helped raise 120 foster care children in the past 20 years.
Eby is currently raising three foster children at his home in Washington County, Maryland.
Eby said the legal process can be lengthy and time consuming, and is further complicated by court closures and restrictions.
“You have no idea what the court system is going to do,” Eby said.
He said he worries the complications will dissuade some families from agreeing to become foster parents.
“We have not seen the end of the emotional cost to individuals,” Eby said.
Court systems have gradually reopened regionwide.
The Maryland state court system is further expanding its operations on Oct. 5, a spokeswoman told the I-Team.
Eby and other foster parents said school closures, and the shift to virtual learning, have further complicated the lives of foster parents.
Parents who must now work from home, or who are unemployed amid the economic downturn, are struggling in some cases to care for children throughout the day, without the support of schools and many child care programs.
“It’s incredibly challenging. At the end of the day, I feel like I have nothing left to give because I’ve given it all away,” said Eby. “It’s been the longest days I’ve ever been through, but also the best,” said Eby who is now home 24-7 with his foster children.
Donald said DC foster parents have also experienced an increased burden during COVID-19 restrictions and stay-at-home orders.
“We are so grateful to our foster parents for bearing with us and stepping up,” Donald said.
The District has approximately 700 foster children at present day, Donald said.
There are about 5,400 in Virginia, including nearly 200 in Fairfax County, 100 in Prince William County, 100 in Alexandria and 50 in Loudon County, according to state records reviewed by the I-Team. Maryland says it has 4,688 foster children in the system.
Reported by Scott MacFarlane, produced by Rick Yarborough, shot and edited by Steve Jones.