Patti and Kevin Bernard became foster parents to a baby girl in December, just months before they were set to become empty nesters. The couple laugh when remembering how their friends would ask, “What are you thinking?"
But they fell into a routine, one that included sleepless nights with the newborn and meetings once or twice a week with the child’s biological mother.
Then the coronavirus happened.
For Kevin, 55, and Patti, 53, the pandemic has allowed the busy family to spend more time together at their Northeast Philadelphia home, and grow even closer to the sweet baby girl who is now 5 months old.
Yet Patti, herself the mother of three grown daughters, couldn’t help but notice the strain on the baby’s biological mother as safety precautions increased and in-person visits gave way to phone calls.
“I think Mom’s definitely been affected by not being able to hold the baby,” Patti said.
Like many facets of society, the foster-care system has been upended by the pandemic. In-person visits with biological parents are halted. With courts closed, many adoptions are on hold. And, to the concern of officials and advocates, reports of suspected child abuse and neglect are down, indicating abuse is going unseen as children no longer interact in person with mandatory reporters such as teachers and coaches.
In Pennsylvania, more than 15,000 children are in foster care, kinship care (under the supervision of a relative or family friend), or congregate care in a group home or other communal setting, according to the state Department of Human Services. This includes at least 5,000 youths in Philadelphia, officials say, and hundreds in the collar counties. The New Jersey Department of Children and Families did not respond to questions, but thousands of young people in foster care there are also affected.
For families already in the system, court-ordered connections have gone virtual. Instead of in-person visits, officials said, biological parents are communicating with their children through phone calls, texting, and videoconferencing.
At least one foster mother and foster child recently set up a “virtual blended family dinner” with the child’s mother and stepfather, said Marjorie McKeone, director of the Bucks County Children and Youth Social Services Agency, which has 302 children in foster care.
These types of meetings can be more emotional for parents, said Douglas Waegel, director of the Chester County Department of Children, Youth and Families, which has 80 children in out-of-home placements. Birth parents of younger children say it can be hard to see their sons and daughters interacting with another family, he said, and they find themselves looking for signs the foster parents are taking proper precautions to protect their children from the virus.
In Philadelphia, family reunification can occur if all parties agree that’s best for the child. If a foster parent is looking to adopt, however, that’s become difficult if not impossible.
In Pennsylvania, adoptions aren’t technically on hold, but court closures have delayed finalization proceedings. In Philadelphia and Bucks and Chester Counties, no hearings are taking place. In Delaware County, these hearings are held virtually, with delays possible, officials said. Montgomery County did not respond to questions.
Child abuse and neglect investigations continue, officials said, but fewer reports are coming in.
The state’s child abuse hotline, ChildLine, reports a roughly 50% drop-off in average daily calls. Suburban counties report similar decreases. In March, New Jersey’s hotline saw a 32% drop compared with March 2019, according to the Bergen Record.
In Philadelphia, the number is even more staggering. During the first week of March, pre-shutdown, officials said, they received 902 reports through the child abuse hotline. By mid-April, they were down to 284 reports a week, a 68.5% decrease.
Constance Iannetta, chair and cofounder of the Pennsylvania Chapter of Foster Care Alumni of America, said she worries about children who are stuck in unhealthy and dangerous situations due to the pandemic.
Her organization has called on Gov. Tom Wolf to ensure that older children, particularly those between the ages of 18 and 21, are protected. When young people in foster care turn 18, they can enter what’s called extended care, which allows them to receive support as they transition to adulthood.
“Young people, especially aging out of foster care, they need support,” said Iannetta, a foster care alumna and foster parent. “Not just during a pandemic but all the time. This just illuminates the gap.”
The Pennsylvania Chapter of Foster Care Alumni of America has asked the Wolf administration to suspend the extended-care requirements that a child must be in school or training, place a moratorium on discharges from extended care, allow people to easily reenter the extended-care system, and increase funding.
The governor responded during a news conference Friday, saying his administration plans to take action, but he not did not provide specifics.
“There’s a broad recognition that when it comes to foster care and other vulnerable populations, we have a lot of work to do," Wolf said, "and we’ll do everything we can to address the unique needs of that vulnerable population.”
If no action is taken, advocates say, the about 700 young people who leave Pennsylvania’s child-welfare system each year are at risk. Without a policy change, those individuals won’t be able to reenter the system, and youths in extended care could be discharged if they can’t keep up with virtual schoolwork or hold a job amid the shutdown.
Duane Price, 18, of Northeast Philadelphia, hopes officials act soon. A Community College of Philadelphia student, he lives in a supervised apartment building with other young people who are in extended care.
When he first heard of the coronavirus in January, he said, he didn’t think much about it. When the city shut down, he went from having an active life — balancing classes and his work with the advocacy organization Youth Fostering Change — to sitting in his apartment, doing remote schoolwork and interacting only with his roommate and building staffers.
Since his continued virtual education allows him to stay in the extended care system, Price considers himself lucky. But he worries about others who are in less-stable situations and feel as anxious as he does about an uncertain future.