The coronavirus pandemic has affected families of all kinds, but some of the state’s most vulnerable children have been impacted in unique ways.
There are 59,000 youth in foster care in California, and in Stanislaus County, there are about five children in foster care for every 1,000 kids. Stay-at-home orders and social distancing measures have affected the foster care system in more ways than one, according to Sandra Genova of Aspiranet. As the organization’s Foster Care Core Program Director in Stanislaus County, Genova has seen firsthand how different life looks for foster youth during the pandemic.
For example, most visitations between foster children and their birth families are now conducted virtually, she said, save for special circumstances, and there was initial concern in the organization that foster families wouldn’t feel comfortable accepting new children into their homes in light of the pandemic.
“That was a big concern of ours because of course people are going to be conscious of their own family’s health needs, and some of our foster families do have existing health conditions. We did a survey with all of our families and luckily every family was open to still taking placements,” Genova said, adding that current placements are screened for COVID-19 before settling into their new homes.
There hasn’t been a shortage of new foster family inquiries, she added, but most families have expressed that they’re not prepared to take in a child who has been exposed to the virus. So far, Aspiranet hasn’t encountered a child who has been exposed to COVID-19.
“Our other concern is kids changing placement within foster care if any families say they can’t care for their foster child with what’s going on, whether it’s in regard to employment or finance,” Genova said.
The state has spoken to that concern, among others, releasing a preservation plan for foster youth that states the pandemic cannot be a reason for a family to no longer care for a child.
Included in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s $42 million in pandemic relief for foster youth is more funding for foster families to help children avoid placement disruption, money to provide more overtime for social workers and support for family resource centers, among other support.
Aspiranet is still seeing daily referrals, Genova said, though the numbers have dropped due to school closures. School closures were deemed necessary by Newsom and public health officials, but have curtailed the ability of mandated reporters such as teachers and school nurses to report cases of possible neglect.
Genova believes that the number of referrals could rise if children return to school and will most likely increase as families spend more and more time quarantined inside their homes.
“There’s always that potential when you have the dynamics of people being at home where relationships are strained, there’s a traumatic history, domestic violence occurs or drug and alcohol use is involved,” she said. “That sort of activity can increase as time goes on and I think that we may see more referrals from law enforcement or neighbors.
“We haven’t seen that quite yet, but that's what we're anticipating as stressors go up.”
To prepare, Aspiranet continues to recruit new foster families, which hasn’t been a problem. There has been a steady flow of inquiries since the pandemic began, with one week even providing a significant boost in the number of interested parties. The organization has also worked diligently to provide foster youth suffering from exacerbated stress, anxiety or depression due to the pandemic with supportive resources meant to help them deal with any trauma. Their greatest need continues to be placing foster youth ages 12 and up in homes, as well as keeping siblings together when being placed.
One of the most impactful aspects of Newsom’s preservation plan will also extend emancipation timelines for foster youth so that they can remain with caregivers during the pandemic. Roughly 200 youth age out of the state’s foster care system each month, according to state estimates.
Aspiranet’s Short-Term Residential Therapeutic Program in Turlock, the Excell Center, offers critical support to boys in crisis, preparing them to be reunited with their families and represents the highest level of care that is available to children and youth in California. The youth housed at the Excell Center are ages 12 and up and have taken the coronavirus pandemic significantly harder than most. Extra measures have been put in place to prevent runaways, like providing additional activities to engage them and help them become successful.
“It’s been really hard for that age group,” Genova said. “I think they’re almost feeling punished, and it’s tough because this is out of everyone’s control. This is the age where they’d normally be doing the most socializing and forming friendships.”
Turlockers looking to make a difference in the lives of foster youth can become foster families, or make a monetary donation to Aspiranet by visiting www.aspiranet.com. The organization is also accepting donations of schools supplies and activities for foster youth to take part in while practicing social distancing.
“We think it’s important that the state has acknowledged foster care as being an essential service during this time and providing a safety net for children,” Genova said. “We’re trying our hardest to back the foster parents and the work that they do, which is very valued.”