Child Welfare’s Response to COVID-19 Is Sickening

foster care: A young baby having a fit on the ground crying.



All over America, there are people who can’t stay home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some always knew their jobs carried risks: Doctors and nurses, police and firefighters, and, yes, child protective services caseworkers. Others were, in effect, drafted into the fight: Letter carriers, pharmacists, truck drivers and all those people stocking shelves and running cash registers at grocery stores. And then there are the people who simply volunteer — like those delivering meals to the elderly.

But while so many others are stepping up, some foster parents in New Mexico and Kentucky are whining because they can’t step away. They’re complaining because — at least for now — they are not allowed to cut their foster children off from all in-person visits with their own families.

Worse, these states may soon be an exception. Other states and localities have, in fact, cut off in-person visits between foster children and their families — and even their siblings in separate foster homes. Many court systems, while continuing to hold hearings to rubber-stamp taking children away from their parents, have shut down hearings to send them home again — so foster children will not only be further isolated from their own families, the isolation will be prolonged.

And when former foster youth Sixto Cancel organized a webinar for foster youth so they could hear how agencies would respond to their needs, almost all the questions came from public and private child welfare agencies — and none of their questions was about the needs of the kids. They were all about how many requirements the agencies could be excused from meeting — and, of course, how they will be paid. There was so much naked self-interest on display I’m surprised the whole event wasn’t busted by the vice squad.

No questioner from the agencies expressed concern about canceled visits or delays in reunification. Instead, Jerry Milner, who runs the Children’s Bureau in the federal Department of Health and Human Services, and was there to answer the questions, had to raise those concerns himself.

I’m sure there are individual foster parents who are extending themselves heroically to keep foster children in touch with their families. There are caseworkers putting themselves at risk both to investigate actual child abuse and to help families stay together when their poverty is confused with neglect. As always, the bad news gets the attention.

But the predominant institutional response of child welfare systems reveals greed, fear and selfishness. All sorts of other businesses are donating to help fight COVID-19 — including breweries converting their production lines to make hand sanitizer and already hard-hit restaurants donating meals. They say the same thing: We help now; we’ll figure out the money later. But not child welfare. 

In short, child welfare’s response to COVID-19 is sickening. Yes, there are serious and real concerns about spreading the virus. But with some guts and imagination, child welfare can cope without doing further harm to vulnerable children. Their failure to be creative doesn’t just do emotional harm to foster children — it risks increasing the spread of COVID-19 itself.


All this is simply one more manifestation of how child welfare really views families: essentially subhuman. The message is clear: Why should we sacrifice ourselves for those rotten, no-good parents? After all, look what they did to their kids.

You can hear it in the words of those New Mexico foster parents, who were showcased in a story from Searchlight New Mexico:

“I’ve cleaned my house, I’ve canceled all activities, I’ve washed my hands 6,000 times,” said Jill Michel, a mother of seven who fosters two children for CYFD. “… I can’t control where the kids will go for the visits and what they’ll be exposed to.

“They are putting my family at risk and it makes me very uncomfortable. If you’re going to make us take these kids out in the wor[l]d, then you take them for 14 days.”

Kentucky foster parents have made similar comments.

There are two key problems with this:

First, most of the time, children are taken away not because they were beaten and tortured but because of neglect — which often means the family was simply poor

Even when the parents have serious and real problems, children almost always need them. One study found that even infants born with cocaine in their systems fared better left with birth mothers able to care for them than when placed in foster care. Other studies have found that visits are, almost literally, a lifeline for children. This has been so well known for so long that decades ago, an American Bar Association report actually recommended requiring daily visits from a time a child is first removed in so-called “emergencies” until the first court hearing.

So keeping children in contact, in person, with their parents isn’t a matter of what parents want — it’s a matter of what children need.

Also, foster parents of New Mexico: We don’t know what those children are being exposed to in your homes either.

Cutting off all contact with family is not necessary to control the virus. No one is saying that all those college students whose universities have closed shouldn’t be allowed to go home. Foster parents love to say they treat foster children “like our own.” If those New Mexico foster parents had children coming home from college would they make them quarantine themselves elsewhere for 14 days first? All over the world families are reuniting — because they need each other.

Here’s the guidance Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo, director of infectious diseases at the University of Alabama in Birmingham offered to The New York Times when asked “Can family come to visit?”

“‘Certainly, sick family should not visit,’ said Dr. Marrazzo. ‘If you have vulnerable people in your family, or who are very old, then limit in-person contact.’

“But if everyone in the family is young and healthy, then some careful interaction in small groups is probably OK. ‘The smaller the gathering, the healthier the people are to start with, the lower the risk of the situation is going to be,’ she said.”

To their credit, child welfare officials in New Mexico understand this. They’re continuing in-person visits unless there’s some indication that someone has been exposed to COVID-19. Said the head of New Mexico’s child welfare agency, Brian Blalock: “I can’t imagine being a child trying to get back to your parents and then having this happen. It would make a terrifying situation even more terrifying.”

And there are ways to reduce the risk. How about moving visits outdoors? Why not hold visits in parks? Or how about all those big empty athletic fields at schools that are now closed? And I’ll bet there are some foster parents who have great big backyards of their own suitable for visits. New Mexico is, in fact, moving visits outdoors — but apparently even that isn’t enough for the foster parents. 

And no, video is not enough. For one thing, toddlers don’t always understand videoconferencing, as a mother in New York City explained to NPR:

“She basically hangs up the phone. So it’s like, very emotional for me to try to do FaceTime when she’s not really paying attention. I’m usually, like, you know, feeding her, singing to her, playing with her, we’re bonding really good, and it’s like it snatched it away from me, this whole virus and being away from her now.”

And, of course, video visits take no account of the digital divide: Poor people are most likely to lose children to foster care and least likely to be able to afford the necessary technology.


Even as visits are being cut back, foster care is being prolonged.

In several states juvenile courts are shutting down — except for taking away children, of course. Those hearings are considered “emergencies.” But if a child has to languish in foster care for weeks or months longer because the hearing on reunification is postponed indefinitely, somehow that’s not an emergency.

In fact, when foster care is prolonged it may well prolong emotional torment for children who never needed to be taken in the first place. It also increases the risk of abuse in foster care — multiple studies have found abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes, and the record of group homes and institutions is even worse. As is discussed below, it may even increase the risk of the spread of COVID-19.

Again, there are better answers.

  • The most obvious is to hold hearings by phone or video. In many cases this is harder than it should be because some courts have not kept up with technology. Indeed, Texas — not generally known as a child welfare leader — claims to be making an all-out effort.
  • When an in-person hearing is the only option, get smart about scheduling. Instead of demanding that the parties for every case show up all at once first thing in the morning, schedule each hearing for a specific time. If museums can master timed entry tickets, it shouldn’t be that hard for courts to do it.
  • Agencies should be reviewing cases in which a child was scheduled to return home in a few months — and seeing if those children can be returned right now. Then courts should allow judges to approve the return over the phone. After all, judges routinely issue orders to take away children that way.
  • Agencies should be taking another look at the children they’ve institutionalized in group homes and “residential treatment” — which doesn’t work even in the best of times, and see if they can be kept safely in their own homes with wraparound services.


As with everything else child welfare does wrong, the double standards for courtroom closures are justified in the name of safety. In fact, they may increase the risk to children — not only the risks associated with foster care in general, but the risk of catching COVID-19.

Consider what removing a child entails:

  • The child may well physically resist removal — that means the ultimate in close contact with the strangers who have come to the door to take her or him away.
  • ­The child is forced into the car of caseworkers or police officers who may have transported any number of others.
  • The child waits at an office while a foster home is found.
  • If no foster home is found, the child is put back into a car and transported to the worst option of all — one of those godawful parking place shelters, where they will be thrown in with scores of other children and youth.
  • And every time the shift changes at the shelters — or at other institutions — the children are exposed to a new set of strangers.
  • When a foster home is found, it’s another car ride to another set of strangers.
  • And to top it off, if courts are continuing to hold hearings to take children away, but refusing to hold hearings to send them home, all those foster homes and shelters are likely to get more crowded.

Again there is a better answer: Think a lot harder about whether that child really is in such immediate danger that the only option is taking her or him away from home. 


You can bet child welfare agencies are going to make children suffer long after the pandemic is over. Just watch: Thanks to prolonged needless foster care due to court closings, more children will be in foster care for 15 of the past 22 months. That triggers a requirement in the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act for agencies to move to terminate parental rights. Some state laws have even shorter timelines.

In fact, there are plenty of exceptions in the law. “ASFA made me do it” is the child welfare equivalent of “the dog ate my homework.” But you can be sure agencies will rush to invoke ASFA whenever they simply like the foster parents better.

And some foster parents will do it themselves: Having pushed to cut off in-person visits and with courts delaying reunification, anyone care to bet we’ll see more efforts by foster parents to play the “bonding card”? In other words, they’ll say: Well, maybe the children never should have been taken in the first place, but they’ve been with us for a long time and they’ve had almost no contact with their parents — so we should be allowed to keep them.


To those who are on the frontlines who read this and think: Sure, that’s easy for him to say, I have just one response: You’re absolutely right.

Yes, my job is much easier than yours. It’s also much easier than the jobs of my letter carrier, the guy who delivers my groceries and all those other people who never asked to be on the frontlines during a pandemic. And it’s certainly easier than the jobs of all those volunteers who are running toward the problem even as so many in child welfare want to run away.

They’re all doing their jobs. Those foster parents in New Mexico and Kentucky, those people who keep the courts running and those who run child welfare agencies need to do their jobs as well.

Richard Wexler is executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.


Youth Today is the only independent, internationally distributed digital media publication that is read by thousands of professionals in the youth service field.

Youth Today adheres to high-quality journalistic standards, providing readers with professional news coverage dedicated to examining a wide spectrum of complex issues in the youth services industry from legislation to community-based youth work.


Our organization retains full authority over editorial content to protect the best journalistic and business interests of our organization. We maintain a firewall between news coverage decisions and sources of all revenue.


We are committed to transparency in every aspect of funding our organization. Donors may be quoted, mentioned or featured in our stories. Our news judgments are made independently – not based on or influenced by donors. Accepting financial support does not mean we endorse donors or their products, services or opinions…(read more)

Youth Today's ISSN: 10896724
Our XML website site map:

Recent Comments



Logo Grant professional Association Business Alliance
LOGO Institute for Nonprofit News 3 turquoise boxes stacked in "J" shape

Copyright © 2019 Youth Today and MVP Themes --- Published by Center for Sustainable Journalism,
1200 Chastain Rd, MD 00310, Chastain Pointe Bldg 300, Suite 310, Kennesaw, GA 30144-5591

To Top