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By Kaleigh Carroll

Amidst Washington’s statewide “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order, the foster care system is struggling to accommodate current foster children as they prepare for a predicted surge in the coming months.

Gov. Inslee’s measures, like the social distancing recommendation and stay-at-home order, are challenging foster families, biological parents and advocacy agencies in unique ways.

The first barrier the foster care system faces begins with placing children into foster homes during the pandemic.

Inslee’s stay-at-home order was designed to keep people from interacting with individuals outside their home unless for an essential purpose, like buying groceries or going to an essential job. Yet that order proves challenging for the foster care system which depends on families bringing new children into their home regularly.

Angelique Day, an associate professor of social work at the University of Washington, recalled a recent incident she heard about where a family refused to bring back a foster child that had visited the hospital. “They [the family] were scared because of fears that the child was exposed to COVID-19 at the hospital,” Day said.

Day, a former foster child herself, noted that family privilege is becoming more apparent during the pandemic. Family privilege is “the idea that you have people who are with you through thick and thin. People who love you unconditionally and are not going to kick you out of the house every time you make a mistake,” Day explained.

If foster youth aren’t given a stable home, then they develop coping mechanisms that prevent them from building trust with others because they fear being rejected, according to Day.

In combination with the increased uncertainty of continued housing, many foster children are experiencing a lack of access to their biological parents.

In-person visits between biological parents and foster children in Washington have been suspended to comply with COVID-19 prevention policies. Advocacy agencies like Skookum Kids and the Whatcom Dispute Resolution Center have had to adapt these services to online platforms.

Skookum Kids, a local non-profit organization that provides temporary housing for foster children, has had “great success” using video conferencing tools in lieu of physical visits, according to founding director Ray Deck.

The Whatcom Dispute Resolution Center, which normally provides in-person parent-child visitation for a variety of situations, has also transferred that service to phone or video calls.

“Is it the same? Absolutely not,” said Janne Sleeper, the Whatcom Dispute Resolution Center supervised visitation program manager. “But it is enormously gratifying to be able to enable these relationships to continue during this time.”

Sleeper emphasized that both the child and parent benefit from continued supervised visitation programs because they provide a sense of security during this stressful time.

Amidst COVID-19, Day described another “quiet crisis” taking place in the foster care system.

Washington has seen a sharp decrease in the number of reported cases of child abuse according to the Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families.

Since the stay-at-home order was declared on March 23, average monthly reports of child abuse in Washington have decreased by 19%. An average of 2,447 reports were made in February 2020 while an average of 1,982 were made in March 2020.

Current data from the department indicates that there will likely be a drop in the average number of cases for April, as it currently sits at 1,276 reported cases.

“Kids are still being mistreated at the same rate, but they aren’t around adults who will notice something is wrong. And that’s really scary,” Deck said. 

Normally, child abuse is reported by adults outside the home, such as teachers or medical professionals, but COVID-19 has disrupted that process. Many teachers are no longer seeing their students daily and medical personnel are focusing on treating COVID-19 patients.

Additional stressors in the home, like unemployment, housing or food insecurity, and increased confinement, are the “perfect storm” for child abuse, Day said.

Skookum Kids has seen this decrease in child abuse reports firsthand.

Deck said the organization is currently receiving the same number of foster children they would expect during the summer when reports normally slow down. This unusual silence has him worried that Skookum Kids and other organizations like it will see a massive spike in reported child abuse cases once schools reopen.

Currently, Day said, The question is, will we be able to ramp up services fast enough to help the children experiencing neglect and abuse now?”

In preparation, Deck said Skookum Kids is working to license more foster homes before the expected “tsunami of reports” in late August and early September when schools are anticipated to resume in-person classes.

During and after the pandemic, “Being a foster parent is the most obvious way to help,” Deck said, “but not everyone can foster a child.”

Deck pointed to other avenues like donating to local foster care organizations or volunteering as ways community members can make a difference in the lives of foster children.

Day urged Washington residents to contact their representatives and advocate for greater funding to child welfare services during the pandemic.

During the pandemic, resources like the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services abuse hotline, 1-866-363-4276, can be reached 24/7. The National Child Abuse Hotline can be called or texted at 1-800-422-4453.

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