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‘We are going through a collective trauma’: Foster children in Spokane face major stresses during pandemic

Chris Meyer, left, and Maddi Heim fold and sort donated clothes at Treehouse, a nonprofit organization that serves the needs of children in the foster-care system, in 2018. In Spokane County, nonprofit says 36% of foster and relative caregivers need more support in meeting the educational needs of youth in their homes during the pandemic.  (Ted S. Warren)
Chris Meyer, left, and Maddi Heim fold and sort donated clothes at Treehouse, a nonprofit organization that serves the needs of children in the foster-care system, in 2018. In Spokane County, nonprofit says 36% of foster and relative caregivers need more support in meeting the educational needs of youth in their homes during the pandemic. (Ted S. Warren)

The COVID-19 pandemic is taking a heavy toll on foster children in Spokane and the rest of the state, according to a statewide organization dedicated to their welfare.

Dawn Rains, the chief police and strategy officer for the Treehouse nonprofit, said the pandemic “has been very challenging on a social-emotional front.”

“First, you have a group of young people who are placed in homes where they don’t know their caregiver, then they are without the structure of school,” Rains said.

On top of that, caregivers don’t get respite time because their foster children aren’t in school.

“We are going through a collective trauma,” said Rains, whose nonprofit provides academic and other essential supports to foster children in the state.

According to a recent Treehouse survey of 151 foster children in Spokane County, the coronavirus has exacted a heavy toll:

  • 36% of foster and relative caregivers need more support in meeting the educational needs of youth in their homes.
  • 30% of students with disabilities have not received special education services.
  • 38% of youth in care have disengaged from school during the pandemic.
  • 31% of youth in care have lost academic progress as a result of the move to distance learning.

At any one time, Spokane typically has 700 to 800 children in the foster care system. Statewide, there are about 9,000, with similar survey results, according to Treehouse.

The general student population has endured many of the same hardships during the pandemic, but they’ve been magnified for foster children, the homeless and other disadvantaged groups.

“We’re seeing a lot of anxiety and depression in our youth,” Rains said. “Because of COVID, many of them are not able to visit their birth parents or their siblings, if they’re not paired together.”

That has worsened the learning gap between foster children and the rest of the student population.

“I would say it’s a fairly big change,” said Rains, who cited conversations with staff who work with youth on a daily basis.

“The disengagement has gone to another level in many cases, where these kids were struggling before COVID,” Rains said.

Many were failing to engage in the distance learning and failed to complete homework.

Rains is hopeful that given a summer to prepare, districts will offer a better organized educational experience, with better communication.

Treehouse also is ramping up to make sure caregivers and social workers have everything they need to navigate distance learning in the new school year.

However, as Spokane Public Schools and other districts begin the year with distance learning only, at-risk children will remain at home – and so will those red flags.

For years, schoolteachers, counselors and other staff have been among the first to raise the warnings over abuse and neglect. Now those children aren’t seen.

At the same time, social workers can’t safely enter homes to check on children.

Not surprisingly, reports to state abuse lines are down 50% nationwide, according to marketplace.org, a nonprofit news organization.

“The places where children are normally seen, like schools and day care settings, are not currently in operation,” said Karen Poteet of the National Foster Parent Association.

Until schools resume normal operations, Treehouse and other groups are hoping that schools will increase their outreach to at-risk students.

That would also boost Treehouse’s Graduation Success program, which at any given time serves 200 youth in Spokane by helping secure housing, providing funds for school fees and job supplies, and reducing barriers to academic or career success.

However, Rains noted that the state guidelines make no mention of foster-care and homeless students.

“They have very specific needs,” Rains said.

In Spokane Public Schools, where 57% of students received free and reduced-price meals last year, Superintendent Adam Swinyard has repeatedly pledged to increase engagement with at-risk students.

“We’re going to try to do everything to get answers on what is going on in their world,” Swinyard said.

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