A growing number of Washington’s foster children spent nights in hotels and state offices in the first three months of the year, and child advocates fear the problem could grow during the coronavirus pandemic.
Social workers had 573 emergency placements in the first quarter of the year, compared to 371 during the same period last year and 212 in 2018, according to the state Office of the Family and Children’s Ombuds, which tracks such placements.
When social workers can’t find a foster home, they are allowed to place children in hotels or shelter them in state offices, but the practice has been criticized. It’s unclear how the pandemic has affected those placements.
“A lot of people aren’t taking children because they are worried they’ll come with the virus,” said Jennifer Claassen, a foster care recruiter and peer mentor in Eastern Washington.
Since the 2009 recession, Washington has struggled to recruit enough foster parents to care for the nearly 9,000 children in its system. Now, the Washington Department of Children, Youth, and Families has partnered with child placing agencies to recruit new and diverse foster parents to try to increase the numbers of homes available for children in need, said Debra Johnson, spokeswoman for the department.
The department hopes to increase the diversity of foster parent homes that will take in siblings, children with disabilities and older foster children, Johnson said.
The number of reports of abuse and neglect has dropped sharply as fewer at-risk children are seen outside their homes. The closure of schools has meant that teachers – who are required to report suspected abuse and neglect – have been unable to look for troubling signs in the lives of their students.
Johnson said department staff are trained to ask the right questions and make observations based on the child’s behavior, but there are still cases where staff goes in to remove the children from homes.
In other areas, the pandemic has had a clear effect on both children and foster parents. For example, state law allows the child time each week to see their biological parents. But the state waived that requirement and instituted emergency rules to allow for video visitation for children in state custody.
Experienced and newly licensed foster parents lean on others for guidance through support groups. Along with many trainings, these support groups moved online, Claassen said.
The lack of in-person support groups can make the work more difficult, according to Emily Craigie, who became a licensed foster parent nine months ago
“Fostering during a pandemic feels more isolating and more lonely than it normally does,” Craigie said.
Craigie said it was difficult to take on a foster child during a pandemic, especially with three kids of their own to keep safe. However, Craigie is thankful for the quality time she and her husband now can spend with their foster child. She said working through the issues would have taken a lot longer if their foster child still was going to school every day.
“We knew it was a risk taking him in during this time, but it was a risk we were called to take,” Craigie said. “It was more important for him to have a home.”
Foster parent Sarah Cross said she hoped more foster parents can be recruited.
“Regardless of what’s going on in the world, children need a loving home,” said Cross, who has been a licensed foster parent for a year. “And that’s something that I had a heart to provide for children.”
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