Before COVID-19 hit, children and youths in the foster care system met with their biological families periodically as dictated by a court. But amid the pandemic, such visits switched to online meetings.

Not all children adapted well to the change, according to officials. Even as Maryland changed pandemic restrictions and some agencies like the Baltimore City Department of Social Services returned to in-person visits, the experience has remained very different.

Under pandemic safety guidelines, the children and their biological families must stand six feet apart, their masks covering the lower part of their faces. Hugging is not allowed.

That can be hard to explain to the children, especially for those who are new to the foster care program, said Stephanie King, manager of the therapeutic foster care program at the Kennedy Krieger Institute.

“If I were a family and my child was in care and I couldn’t lay my hands on them, that would break my heart,” she said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced departments of social services and foster care programs across the nation to adapt. But for many children and youths who rely on stability, there is still a lot of disruption, experts say.

Congress last December passed a bipartisan COVID-19 relief bill, which included $400 million for foster care programs affected by the pandemic. Maryland received over $3 million in February.

The legislation also expanded financial support to those in foster care: instead of children aging out at age 21, the new cut-off is 27.

“There really shouldn’t be a kid under the age of 27, who is in foster care at some point, struggling at all right now,” Ruth White, executive director of National Center for Housing and Child Welfare, told Capital News Service.

A majority of the children at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, a Baltimore-based non-profit that has a therapeutic foster program, are identified as having been neglected or abused, King said.

In the city of Baltimore, there are currently 1,904 children and youth in foster care, according to Baltimore City Department of Social Services.

In Maryland’s largest city, as in the nation, most foster children eventually are reunited with their biological families or with relatives. The others are adopted.

The situations that send children into foster care vary, King said. Some have experienced some level of trauma; others have special needs that parents can’t meet, such as medical conditions; still others may be dealing with family drug or alcohol abuse, financial stresses or housing issues — all problems that the society at large is struggling with, King said.

King stressed that such kids need to have a sense of stability.

The foster family becomes a support system for the biological families, she said. And programs like hers encourage foster parents, especially as the time for a child to go home gets closer, to be really engaged so that the biological parents are prepared to take care of the child.

While the ultimate goal of foster programs is to return children to their biological families, if that’s not possible, efforts still are made to maintain a connection between them. And that has been harder to do during the pandemic.

The courts determine how often children in foster care may be in contact with their biological families. That may be weekly, bi-weekly or monthly. Some children may be barred from contacting their families at all. And these visitations can be either supervised or unsupervised, depending on court orders.

After the pandemic began, the Baltimore City Department of Social Services created a special team to support family providers and foster parents.

In-person visits resumed July 1, except for those at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 or those over 65.

For many kids, especially those with significant developmental disabilities or who are younger, an online environment isn’t the same, King said. It may be hard for them to understand what is happening.

There also have been times when families needed to be tested for COVID or suffered deaths from the disease, King said. Sometimes, these emergencies mean that a foster child could no longer go to a certain foster family.

Legislation in Congress aims to strengthen foster care programs. Introduced in March by Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, and Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Michigan, the bills would amend the Social Security Act to ensure that children and youths entering foster care receive mental health screenings and assessments.

The bills would require states to provide such screenings within 30 days of entering foster care systems. Those found to require mental health care would get a “comprehensive health assessment” within 60 days. Yearly screenings also would be required.

“Children in foster care are much more likely to struggle with issues like depression, anxiety, and PTSD,” Blunt said in a statement. “With data showing an alarming decline in outpatient mental health services for children across the country, this is a critical time to ensure that foster children do not fall through the cracks.”

This article originally appeared on CNSMaryland.org on Wednesday, April 14, 2021.


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