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Pandemic Challenges U.S. Child Welfare System's Ability To Recruit New Foster Parents

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Even in a typical year, it's never easy recruiting new foster parents. The nation's child welfare system watches over more than 400,000 kids in foster care. And now there are signs that the pandemic and the financial and safety issues it's creating are making recruitment even harder. From member station WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, Jess Mador reports.

JESS MADOR, BYLINE: Patrick Cloud is no stranger to the ups and downs of the foster care system. He and his wife have taken foster kids into their large home for years outside Dayton. They're used to juggling school, doctor and caseworker visits. But since COVID hit, Cloud says sleep is the one thing that's a lot harder to come by. He works from midnight to 8 a.m. at a trucking company and says his house isn't as quiet as it once was.

PATRICK CLOUD: During the school year, normally, I would get home. And they'd already be in school, so I could sleep from, like, 9 to 3. But I'm kind of used to it. I just kind of sleep in naps whenever I can.

MADOR: Now after finishing his overnight shift, Cloud gets right back to work, helping the family's six foster kids with online school.

CLOUD: That is hard. You have to have four computers up. They're doing their classes. You're the teacher. The littler kids - it's easy because you know that. But now they throw in that seventh, eighth grade math that we thought we knew - yeah, it's different.

MADOR: Patrick Cloud worries about the imprint the pandemic will leave on foster children, many of whom deal with trauma and other serious challenges. And the phone keeps ringing with calls seeking space for more children removed from their biological parents. National data on foster parents is incomplete, and it'll likely take time before a true picture of the current crisis emerges.

Stefanie Sprow says what is clear is the pandemic is straining a system that was already maxed out. She heads child welfare policy at the Children's Defense Fund.

STEFANIE SPROW: Parents who are now working from home or who are at home because they lost their jobs due to the economic downturn and are really struggling, in some cases, to care for these children without the supports of schools or child care programs.

MADOR: But many states are adapting and offering foster parents more home-school and other resources. Still, Sprow says, additional federal money would help states better support struggling foster families.

Ohio case coordinator Kari Harris is with an agency called SAFY. She says despite the challenges, the COVID restrictions are creating some surprising bright spots in her relationship with foster families.

KARI HARRIS: Before the pandemic, it was phone calls. And then we would go out to the homes two, three, four times a month.

MADOR: She spent a lot of time driving from house to house. She says video makes visitation more flexible for everyone.

HARRIS: It has been a big burden lifted off of everybody's shoulders to try and match everybody's schedule in terms of stress.

MADOR: While meeting inside the home is still ideal, now when they meet in person, they do it outdoors. Harris' caseload includes a lot of single foster parents or parents working jobs labeled as essential, and that sometimes leaves teenagers at home alone. She says video also gives her more critical one-on-one time with vulnerable young people managing online school during the day.

HARRIS: We can Skype. We can FaceTime. So, you know, if they are struggling with something or they need advice on how to do something, then turn on your video and show me what's going on. And we can sit down and try and work it out together.

MADOR: Despite the very real challenges of social distancing, she says connecting by video helps her build a deeper trust with her clients. And in 2020, when so many things are anything but typical, child advocates say they need more foster parents willing to take children into their homes during the pandemic.

For NPR News, I'm Jess Mador. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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