Projected Surge In Demand For Foster Care
The U.S. foster care system is already stressed by the coronavirus recession. Yet, the economic hardships caused by the pandemic may lead to even more children entering foster care as unemployment, poverty, and homelessness increase. Since the lack of financial security during a recession disincentivizes potential foster parents, the system is at risk of not having enough foster families and social workers for youth in need. To preempt that, more federal funding should be distributed to child welfare services, so they can train prospective foster parents without added financial stress. While the system does have considerable existing flaws, the youth and families involved in foster care currently need economic assistance, so child welfare services should receive urgent funding during this time to support vulnerable children.
Why Contribute To A Flawed System?
Some argue that the U.S. foster care system is broken. Despite passing qualifications, foster parents often lack sufficient resources to properly care for children. Each year, around 20,000 youth age out of the system without a permanent home or steady income. Studies have also shown that children who have experienced foster care are at higher risk for health issues, such as depression and developmental delays, compared to other children. For these reasons, many wonder why they should participate in foster care if they would be contributing to a flawed system. Their concerns are valid; changes can and should be made to improve the current state of child welfare. However, the present—and likely also the near future—calls for individuals, families, and the government to step up for children in need of foster homes. Keeping the foster care system functioning for now prevents it from completely collapsing, which could put the health and safety of thousands of children at risk.
Pandemic Isolation Hurts Foster Children
COVID-19 has increased feelings of loneliness and isolation among the general population. But for the more than 437,000 children in foster care, the lack of social interaction can be especially detrimental. In-person visits from siblings, birth parents, and social workers have been restricted and even banned due to coronavirus concerns. Bonding with biological family is crucial to the well-being and development of children in foster care. Video calls cannot replace in-person time, so foster children should be allowed to meet safely with their biological parents and social workers because emotional wellness and physical health are both important. However, social workers cannot guarantee safe visits without personal protective equipment, which is at constant risk of shortage due to high demand. Therefore, the federal government must recognize and treat social workers as essential workers by equipping them with resources to safely conduct and supervise visits with foster children.
Racial Disproportionality In The System
The pandemic has exacerbated racial disparities throughout American society, and the foster care system is no exception. Racial minority groups, including African Americans and Native Americans, are overrepresented. According to data from 2018, 23 percent of foster children are African American, but African Americans only represent 14 percent of the child population. In comparison, white children make up more than half of the child population, but they only represent 44 percent of all children in foster care. On top of existing racial inequities in health care, children of color are also disproportionately affected by the pandemic’s impact on the foster care system because they are overrepresented. To address these inequities, the foster care system must first survive the pandemic and the recession. Congress must consider child welfare a top priority in their next stimulus package because preserving a functioning, albeit flawed, foster care system at least provides a temporary safety net for underprivileged minority children.
The (Virtual) Way Forward
In the age of COVID-19, everything from school classes to work meetings has gone virtual. Likewise, nonprofits such as FosterClub have launched virtual trainings for foster parents. This is especially helpful for adults who may not have flexible work schedules, so online trainings become a convenient resource. Additionally, visits from social workers have switched from in-person to video conferences, allowing caseworkers to continue seeing foster children in their home environments. However, blanket policies like bans on in-person visits must be lifted to accommodate exceptional cases. Online resources and training services should be expanded so that social workers can maintain contact with foster families while limiting in-person time.
As for funding, Congress should pass H.R.7947, the Supporting Foster Youth and Families through the Pandemic Act. This can help services increase visit frequency, purchase personal protective equipment (PPE) for social workers, and provide technology for children to connect with family. Amid a pandemic and a recession, foster children’s unique needs must not be overlooked.