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COVID-19 and the Child Welfare System

Learn how COVID-19 is affecting children, families, and workers involved in child protection, foster care, adoption and guardianship, as well as the increased risks it presents for child abuse and neglect

Challenges in a Time of Crisis: Keeping Children Safe, Supporting Older Youth from Care, and Strengthening Families

COVID-19 is threatening the safety and wellbeing of our nation’s most vulnerable children in many ways. The Child Welfare COVID website (childwelfarecovid.org) is an undertaking of non-governmental organizations who seek to gather and share information and news related to the COVID-19 epidemic to inform advocacy efforts and decision making by policy makers during this crisis. (See the About section at bottom of page for more information).

State and local communities need resources for a comprehensive approach to prevent, intervene, and treat child abuse and neglect, address the COVID-19 challenges in the foster care system, and provide help to those aging out of foster care during this crisis.


Children and Older Youth

Over 430,000 children in foster care may be facing significant difficulties as a result of COVID-19. The majority of children in foster care have special health care needs, including disproportionately higher rates of chronic illness and because they have experienced trauma, many of them have mental health care needs. Most children in foster care are in family based settings, however, 1 in 3 teens in foster care lives in a group setting. Stability is one of the most important things we can provide to help a child in foster care heal and thrive, and this crisis threatens the system’s ability to ensure stable placements and connections to family. Most critically, due to the physical distancing protocols, many children are now unable to visit siblings and parents in person. Relying on virtual connections is challenging as not all children or the adults in their lives have access to a phone, a computer, or wifi.

According to a recent FosterClub March 2020 survey, older foster youth report they are experiencing:

  • Housing instability: Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, 39.6% were forced to move or fear losing housing
  • Food Insecurity: 27.6 % in crisis or very low in food
  • Insufficient financial resources: 18% in crisis, 32.8% less than a week of money to pay basic needs
  • Isolation and increased mental health concerns during an already difficult period in life.

Birth Parents and Foster Families

The COVID-19 pandemic is challenging for all families, especially those who are already struggling. The disruptions and uncertainties associated with this public health crisis can be traumatic for children, especially for those who are in foster care. Foster and birth parents are also encountering big challenges. Birth parents who are working hard to reunify with their children might not be able to visit in-person with their children as many of the important “family time” visits are shifting to less personal meetings due to social distancing protocols. This impacts all children and is especially challenging for infants and toddlers who can’t have meaningful interaction via online communication. Court closures and hearing delays can disrupt reunification or other permanency plans. Like other families across the county, foster and kinship families are stepping up to the new challenges and working harder than ever to meet the added demands of caring for children who are home all day. Not all foster families have the computers, phones and IT services they need to meet all the new online demands, particularly when there are multiple children needing to be online for learning or to connect to health and therapy appointments. Support and communication from child welfare agencies is critically important, but agencies are also facing significant challenges as they transition staff to working remotely. Families an workers alike need new tools and training to continue providing critical services under these new conditions.


Grandparents and Relative Caregivers

More than 2.5 million children are being raised by grandparents and other relatives who step in to keep them safely with family and out of foster care. Without these caregivers, the already overburdened foster care system would be overwhelmed. Parental substance use and the opioid epidemic are the most common reasons grandparents and other relatives are raising children. Because of the opioid crisis, we’ve seen dramatic growing reliance by the foster care system on grandparents and other relatives. These “grandfamilies” are now having to navigate two crises – the opioid crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. Like our first responders, these caregivers, are the first line of defense for the children in their care. Yet many of them are older and at increased risk of death or severe illness if exposed to the virus, and they are struggling to get access to food and medicine, accurate information, help with the children’s education and help making emergency plans for the children if they were to become too sick to care for them.

During the pandemic, adults over the age of 60 and people with compromised immune systems are asked to isolate themselves and not have contact with children and young people. Grandfamilies can’t take a break from each other. We can, however, ensure they have:

  • Access to food, medicine and supplies without requiring them to leave the house and risk greater exposure
  • Accurate information to help them decrease their risk of exposure and illness,
  • Help planning for who will care for their children I case they die or become too sick to continue caring for them.
  • Access to the technology and help using it so they can stay informed and so the children in their care can participate in distance learning.
  • Help with supporting their children’s educational needs at home
  • Access to virtual support groups to reduce isolation

Kinship Navigator programs are information and referral programs that help grandparents and other relatives raising children connect to critical services and information to help them. These programs can identify grandfamilies in need and coordinate with other community-based programs to help families get the supplies and support they need during the pandemic. Yet these programs need more resources to meet the skyrocketing demand for help from the families during the pandemic.


Prevention and Investigation

The impacts of COVID-19 are putting stress on families who are attempting to navigate new public health safety protocols, school closures, uncertain childcare arrangements, job losses, social isolation, and significant barriers to many critical support services. The research on child maltreatment makes clear that family stress leads to increased risk of child abuse and neglect. COVID-19 is also forcing families into isolation and away from critical networks of support they rely on during times of need. This isolation will put families under great stress and lead to significant increases in the risk of child maltreatment. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has carefully studied these risks and issued a report in 2018 identifying family social isolation as one of the leading risk factors for child maltreatment. Concerningly, this is occurring at a time when children are not in child care, school, or being regularly seen by medical professionals so identifying child maltreatment is much harder. State and local prevention programs run by organizations and professionals uniquely skilled at addressing the challenges families are currently facing are still operating. But the need for their services is higher than ever. Families need specialized support to address the unique challenges of parenting in isolation in this high stress landscape.


Agencies and Staff

Social workers are at the frontlines in helping ensure children’s safety in times of family crisis. With the onset of the Corona-19 epidemic, their jobs has gotten even harder. Case workers who investigate suspected child maltreatment must visit the child’s home. These, and other workers, face barriers to conducting safety investigations and other in-person visits. In addition, many agency staff and case workers are working remotely and rely on information technology tools to conduct their work. However, with shelter-in-place and other similar public health protocols, agencies need new tools and training to continue conducting child abuse and neglect investigations as well as serving children and families already involved in foster care systems. Almost every core function of their jobs has been disrupted.


Image by Devin Avery

“Can someone please talk to me?
I am all alone.”

Written by a young person formerly in foster care on recent Facebook post


About the Child Welfare COVID Website

The Child Welfare COVID Website is a collaborative project of non-governmental organizations, including advocacy organizations, that are working together to assess the effects COVID is having on children and family involved in child welfare. Organizations that are primary contributors include the American Academy of Pediatrics, Children’s Defense Fund, ChildFocus, Children’s Trust Fund Alliance, FosterClub, Generations United, National Child Abuse Coalition and True North Group. These collaborating partners also lead communications and advocacy efforts to encourage policy makers to take necessary action to ensure that families receive the support they need to protect their safety and well-being. Through this website, we share resources and information about how this virus is affecting children and families involved in the child welfare system, and offer advocacy tools and information to stakeholder who are interested in getting involved in advocating on behalf this population.


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