‘The Challenges of the Virus Have Acted Only to Heighten an Already Urgent Need for Systemic Change’

What the federal Children’s Bureau wants parents to know about their rights during the pandemic.

By Keyna Franklin, Rise Parent Leader, and Sara Werner and Cynthia Zizola, Rise Contributors

The coronavirus shutdown is putting stress on families and is negatively impacting families with child welfare involvement: Courts are closed, hearings are delayed and in-person visits and services are canceled.

Jerry Milner (left), the Associate Commissioner of the U.S. Children’s Bureau, and David Kelly (right), Special Assistant to the Commissioner, “We cannot allow the coronavirus to serve as a modern-day orphan train that leads to the distribution of other people’s children.”

Here, they explain parents’ rights and protections during the pandemic. They also discuss their guidance to child welfare agencies and courts and their vision for child welfare reform.

Q. Can you explain the federal Children’s Bureau’s role and ability to impact child welfare agencies?

A. The U.S. Children’s Bureau provides funding and guidance to state and tribal child welfare agencies nationally. We also conduct reviews to monitor state agency compliance with statutes and regulations. 

The largest percentage of our funding goes to reimburse states for costs associated with foster care, adoption and guardianship—about 90 percent of our $10 billion budget. We do not think that makes sense and want to change it. We’d like our funds to also go to supporting families so that foster care is less necessary. We know that help with basic needs, often related to poverty, would make a tremendous difference in helping families stay together. We are working towards that.  

We also have a much, much smaller budget to fund grants to try new approaches. These opportunities carry great promise of learning how to work with families in much more supportive ways and prevent unnecessary parent child separation.

Our impact on child welfare agencies is somewhat limited. We can provide strong encouragement, offer technical assistance and resources to support improvement and best practices, monitor state compliance with federal laws, place them on program improvement plans if they are not complying with laws, and penalize states financially for not making required improvements.

Q. How are you seeing families involved with the child welfare system being impacted by the pandemic and what has your response been? 

A. Involvement with the child welfare system is incredibly difficult even under the best possible circumstances. It is much, much more challenging now with stay-at-home orders, inability to access services, inability to spend time in-person with children, and social isolation. It is not possible for us to know the pain you may be feeling as parents or the anxiety you may be experiencing at this moment. However, it is especially important to us that parents who may read this interview know that we are listening. We hear your voices. We care about you. You matter to us and most importantly, we know your children love and need you.

The crisis is causing great hardship to families everywhere. It is acting to make poor families poorer. We are deeply concerned about families’ abilities to maintain safe housing, put food on the table, pay utilities and meet other basic needs for their families. 

We have issued guidance to courts and child welfare agencies around the country emphasizing the importance of continuing to make reasonable efforts to prevent removals. Families should not have to struggle and risk separation due to poverty, ever. That was true before the crisis, is true during the crisis, and will be true after the crisis. We continue to advocate for flexibility in federal funding so that agencies may use child welfare funding to help meet those needs. We don’t have that flexibility right now and feel it is essential.  

We have called upon agencies and courts to ensure that family time continues during the crisis—perhaps even be made more frequent so that children can receive additional support and comforting from their parents. Where it may be unsafe to continue family time in person or where stay at home orders are in place, we have urged courts and agencies to make sure parents and youth have access to cell phones or other devices for video conferencing so that you can continue to see and speak with your children as often as possible. 

We have reminded courts of their responsibilities to continue holding child welfare agencies accountable for continuing reunification work. We have urged agencies and courts to reunify children that can be sent home today so long as the virus is not present in the resource or family home. For families where reunification was scheduled prior to the public health crisis, we recommend it occur now so long as it is possible to do so within public health mandates. If reunification was scheduled to occur in the near future, agencies should review whether children can be sent home immediately.

We have reiterated that hearings, reviews and judicial determinations must continue and that parents and youth must continue to have access to their attorneys and to participate in court hearings and reviews and that this can also happen virtually.

We have also sent a strong message to agencies and courts that the lack of availability of critical services, treatment and supports during this time should not be held against parents. We’ve asked agencies and courts to remain mindful of the difficulties that parents are facing and the limitations that agencies and service providers face in meeting those needs. 

There is a tool under the law that allows agencies not to file for a termination of parental rights even when a child has been in foster care for 15 of the most recent 22 months (the standard under the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act) if there is a compelling reason. We have reminded agencies of this tool and have made clear that we believe the interruption of services, treatment and family time warrant such a consideration.

Q. What are parents’ rights during this pandemic to have a reasonable chance to reunify? Who is responsible for enforcing those rights during the coronavirus pandemic? 

A. Parents have all of the same rights during the crisis as they did before the crisis. The challenge lies in asserting and enforcing them. In many places around the country, it will be more difficult. 

One of the biggest challenges is court closure for public health reasons. While the Children’s Bureau has no authority over courts, we are strongly urging courts to remain operational during the crisis to hear child welfare cases. While many physical courthouses and buildings are now closed and may be for the foreseeable future, we are urging courts to move to holding virtual hearing and reviews. We provided them with guidance on holding virtual hearings and resolving issues by motions or agreement. 

Courts continue to have the obligation under the law to ensure your rights are protected. It is incredibly important for child and family needs to be discussed on a family specific basis, as all children and all families are unique.

We wrote a letter to legal and judicial leaders in late March urging all courts to refrain from issuing blanket court orders that postpone all hearings and reviews or suspend family time. Blanket orders fail to take into consideration the individual needs and circumstances of families and children. 

We also are strongly encouraging our court grantees, known as Court Improvement Programs (CIPs), to use funds to help courts hold virtual hearings and reviews and create opportunities for attorneys to regularly meet virtually with parents and children that they represent.  

If parents feel their rights are being violated, they should contact their attorneys immediately. It is more important now than ever to stay in very frequent communication with your attorneys. Attorneys will still be able to advocate on your behalf regardless of whether courts are open or operational.

Q. Services or visits required for reunification may be suspended for parents due to the coronavirus. We are concerned that this may be used as evidence that parents are not complying with their plans. What are your recommendations for parents and for agencies and court systems? 

A. Continuation of family time (visits) is one of our biggest concerns. Research makes clear that reunification is closely associated with family time. We also know that family time is critical to minimizing trauma for children while they are separated from their parents. We’ve urged child welfare agencies to do everything they can to continue family time. Where it is not safe for it to continue in person, we have emphasized the importance of regular—at least daily—virtual contact. While virtual contact is never as effective as in-person family time, it can help maintain connection. 

We also urge you to stay connected with your caseworker and attorney as much as possible. Communication is the key right now, perhaps more important than ever. Ask your caseworker to help arrange and ensure that you have daily phone calls or teleconferences with your child. This can also be a time for you to form or enhance your relationship with resource parents. If you have their contact information, get in touch and ask if you can set a time every day to call and check in with them and with your child. 

Lack of availability or ability to participate in in-person family time due to the restrictions of the virus should not be used against parents when normalcy returns

Q. Some parents do not have internet service and phones, laptops, or other devices needed to be in touch with their children and lawyers and participate in hearings. Who is responsible for making sure parents have access? 

A. We fully appreciate that many parents often do not have the financial resources to maintain phones or internet and do not have laptops or other devices. Ensuring that parents have access to phones and other technology is critical to staying connected and making sure their needs are met. We have given child welfare agencies flexibility to use federal funding to purchase phones, internet service and other devices for parents to help them stay connected. 

We are strongly encouraging all child welfare agencies to use this new flexibility to the maximum extent. Keeping parents connected with social workers, attorneys, treatment providers and of course their children is of benefit to everyone and critical to the safety, permanency and well-being of children and families.

Q. Could you please tell us about your call to action to reform the child welfare system nationally? How do you think this pandemic would look different for families if we had already reformed the child welfare system to better support families without separation?

A. The challenges of the virus have acted only to emphasize the need for reshaping what child welfare is in the United States—it heightens an already urgent need for systemic change.

We are on a mission to change how parents and children experience the child welfare system. We are advocating to reshape the child welfare system into a family well-being system that focuses on strengthening families and reducing the need for separation. We can be a system that helps prevent trauma and provides healing where necessary as opposed to a system that exacerbates trauma. 

We have had the good fortune to travel to nearly all states over the past three years. We meet with groups of parents with children in foster care as well as those that have had a child in care at some point in their lives. So many of the stories we have heard are heartbreaking–stories of trauma, confusion, aloneness and grief. Parents far too often use words such as scared, confused, overwhelmed, alone, angry and sad to describe their experiences. We have also heard stories of remarkable strength, resilience and success.

These conversations have helped us set two overarching goals:

The first is to reduce the need for families to ever make contact with the child welfare system by helping support robust community-based family support networks. Places that are there to help without stigma—a very long arm’s length away from the child welfare agency—that provide resources, opportunities, a place to connect and services and concrete supports when needed. These are the supports that all families need in good times and bad. These are the types of things we believe child welfare dollars should help pay for to reduce the need for foster care. We believe this because parents around the country have told us it is will make a difference.

The second goal is to dramatically improve the foster care experience for children and their parents when it is necessary. As much as we would like to eliminate the need for foster care altogether, it will likely always be necessary. When it is, it can function much more as a support to an entire family than as a substitute for families. Traditionally foster care has been structured to keep resource/foster families apart from a child’s parents. We believe that, in the overwhelming majority of cases, this is the wrong approach. If the goal of foster care is to help families reunify, resource families should work together with parents that have a child in foster care. Parents should remain involved in the daily lives of their children in an approach that looks much more like co-parenting. This way, children in foster care will know that there are multiple people who love them and are working together to support them. 

We believe we have a moral and ethical responsibility to help keep families strong and together and foster care can play an important role if it is repurposed to support parents. 

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