The Children’s Bureau of the federal Administration for Children & Families issued guidance on March 27th to address how foster care cases should be handled in the midst of COVID-19. This guidance needs to be followed if states are to continue to receive federal funding that supports state child welfare systems. Dr. Jerry Milner, acting director of the Children’s Bureau, presented in a recent webinar sponsored by the American Bar Association, where he discussed the guidance and urged those working within state child welfare systems to view our current circumstances as an opportunity to be creative and innovative.
Like many other programs and systems, COVID-19 has changed the foster care landscape. Parents of children living in foster care are still entitled to spend time with their children on a regular basis to help establish and maintain a relationship. However, COVID-19 has interrupted this family time due to health concerns for all involved: the children, parents, foster parents and caseworkers who attend the meetings. Many of the services and programs that parents are engaged in to address the problems that caused the foster care placement in the first place have either stopped or moved online.
While there are public health considerations, family time is important for both the child and parent, and is critically important during these times of crisis. Thankfully, there are lots of social platforms available through which people can stay connected, until in-person visits can be arranged. These platforms can also be used to facilitate support programs and services necessary for the parents.
Court hearings are still required at regular intervals so that judges can find out what progress is being made and what else needs to be accomplished to either reunify the family or to place the child permanently with a relative or another family. These cases are difficult under normal circumstances, so attempting to handle them remotely is a daunting task. The attorneys who represent parents, children and youth, and the Division of Child Protection and Permanency have legitimate concerns that need to be addressed to ensure that the legal rights of all concerned are protected.
Dr. Millner indicated that the Children’s Bureau does expect stakeholders to “work together to determine how best to balance statutory requirements related to child safety against public health mandates.” Some national groups have provided guidance that stakeholders might find helpful, such as tips for holding remote hearings and advocacy tools for practitioners. For years, stakeholders have struggled with how to make the foster parent and the parent work together with the caseworker as part of a team. Legal Services of New Jersey has given us many examples of successful outcomes from a team approach at its annual reunification days.
Presenters on the webinar urged stakeholders to be proactive problem solvers and for judges to push attorneys to have real conversations to resolve issues. We can take this time as an opportunity to revisit how we handle child welfare cases, and hopefully discover positives outcomes from this pandemic to ensure that children remain safe and families are supported. Any questions should be directed to ACNJ Vice President Mary Coogan at firstname.lastname@example.org.