Elva Etienne/Getty Images
Elva Etienne/Getty Images
On Mondays and Tuesdays, Jessica's daughter is supposed to stay overnight with her in Brooklyn, N.Y., but that's all changed with the coronavirus outbreak.
"I have to just do FaceTime, video conference and three-way calls," Jessica says. "I can't see her anymore, for now."
Her daughter, who is a toddler, is in foster care and Jessica is part of a mother-and-child program that provides a home and mental health and drug treatment services for moms who either live with their kids, or who have children in foster care. Jessica asked that NPR only use her first name because of pending legal cases related to the custody of her daughter, which she is working to regain.
But now she doesn't know when she'll see her child again. Visitations have been canceled and she says video calls can't replace in-person contact, especially with a 2-year-old. Her little girl can't hold a conversation or pay attention long enough to try. Jessica says her toddler often presses the screen and accidentally hangs up the chat.
"I'm usually feeding her, singing to her, playing with her, we were bonding," Jessica says. "It's like [the virus] snatched it away from me now."
Attempts by cities, counties and states to mitigate the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 are forcing child welfare services, foster agencies, family courts and parents across the country to assess what necessitates in-person contact.
"One of our biggest concerns is the slowdown in family court," says Anya Mukarji-Connolly, a supervising attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services, the organization representing Jessica in her legal case.
Because of the coronavirus outbreak, New York City's courts are only hearing cases that are deemed an emergency or essential. That means Jessica's upcoming court appearance — when custody and visitation were supposed to be addressed — is now postponed for months. Services provided to families are also slowing down.
"We don't know yet how this is going to impact our clients, but we know that it's going to be terrible," Mukarji-Connolly says. "Not having access to services, not have access to visitation, it's certainly going to be harmful to the families, but also we anticipate it will delay reunification."
That's particularly devastating for a family in this time of panic when parent and child are seeking comfort, Mukarji-Connolly says. It also may prolong how long a child is in foster care when they could be reunited with their parents.
Right now New York City's Administration for Children's Services is continuing to fully operate.
"We continue to put protocols in place to help our frontline workers carry out that mission safely," says Chanel Caraway, a spokesperson for the agency.
"As part of that effort, we are currently working with input from our State oversight agency on guidance that will allow for more flexibility when it comes to conducting home visits to ensure children are safe," Caraway says.
Other states are making drastic decisions. Maine's Office of Child and Family Services announced it's temporarily suspending all in-person parental visitations and stopping monthly visits by caseworkers to foster homes.
"To ensure that OCFS is remaining connected to youth, parents, and resource parents, it is expected that staff will coordinate contact to occur through phone calls or video conferencing for any families that need to be seen by the end of April 2020," read a letter addressed to both foster and adoptive parents on Maine's Office of Child and Family Services website. "Calls from staff may come through to you from different phone numbers as it is possible they will be working remotely. Please answer unknown numbers at this time or check voicemail frequently."
Los Angeles County courts are suspended through April 16 for all non-emergency and non-essential matters. The county has the largest child welfare system in the country and right now it says it is fully staffed and continuing in-home visits, placements and removals, while also assessing what in-person contact is absolutely necessary. It's also providing protective gear to its staff.
"Much of the work that we do is emergency basis, and that means that we have to appear at the home unannounced," Bobby Cagle, the director of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, says. "When we do that, we try to equip those workers first with the kind of masks, eye protection, gloves and gowns that they need" in the event that they encounter a family member who is, or could be, sick, he says.
Cagle is managing a system of some 9,000 staff who serve about 34,000 children at any given time.
"The work of child protection is a 24-hour a day, seven days a week endeavor across our country," Cagle says. "And just like police protection and fire protection, our services continue throughout the crisis and the social distancing."
But the same isolation that is supposed to keep people healthy could also be detrimental for a child who is being mistreated. Calls to the system's hotline are down and Cagle says that's because schools are closed and teachers and school staff, who normally have an eye out for alleged abuse, aren't seeing kids. So Cagle is calling on the public to watch for signs of abuse and neglect and to call the Child Protection Hotline.
"I very strongly encourage the public to remain vigilant about the safety of children in families," he says. "This is a time of increased stress and we know from the work that we do that this can also cause an uptick in maltreatment of children. And so we want to be very much on the watch for that."
For now, Cagle says he has the staff and equipment he needs to keep going, but that this is just the beginning. Protective gear will need to be replenished and he's expecting that staffing will also drop significantly if this is a long-term pandemic.
"There may be a time where we have to begin to do contact based upon risk to children and families. Taking the most risky ones first," he says. "Thankfully, we're not there at this point."