John DeGarmo is the founder and director of the Foster Care Institute. He and his wife Kelly have been foster parents for nearly 20 years and had more than 60 children go through their home. They live in Monticello, Ga. (about 60 miles southeast of Atlanta) with seven children, three adopted from the foster care system.
He founded the residential home Never Too Late, a transitional living program for boys ages 16 to 21 to help them transition out of the foster care system. DeGarmo spoke with Clarissa Sosin over the phone in early April about how he’s seeing the coronavirus pandemic affect foster care families and providers. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Youth Today: What does the Foster Care Institute do?
John DeGarmo: We provide support, resources, training for child welfare agencies — which I’ve been doing a lot of for the last two weeks. My phone has been ringing off the hook. Child welfare agencies really are scrambling right now to try to support the foster parents. They are stuck at home with these children and not only are foster parents really worried about how can they pay their bills, do they still have jobs, food, toilet paper, but they are also caring for children whose anxiety levels are going through the roof. So foster care agencies are really struggling right now to get the resources so I help with webinars, training and lots of things.
YT: Can you give me some examples of the ways that you’re helping the agencies?
DeGarmo: Foster parents have to have a number of training hours every year and right now they can’t get that training because they can’t leave the house. We have over 50 hours of online training. We provide unlimited access to that. I’m creating a lot of live webinar sessions and educational support systems online for foster parents. We’re doing a lot of question and answer times. I’m sending out books to agencies. I am answering a lot of questions that foster parents have through their agencies.
Anxious kids, burned-out parents
And I’m really trying to help with retention. We’re going to be seeing a lot of foster parents quit during this time because they are overwhelmed with the kids in their home. Foster parents, like so many parents, are learning how to be homeschooling teachers. But for kids in foster care, who are generally behind academically and have behavioral issues, school for them is a nightmare. So foster parents are trying to teach these kids when they’ve not been equipped to be a teacher in general for kids with anxiety. So I’m helping in that regard as well. Teaching people how to teach these kids if you will.
YT: What are some of your biggest concerns right now with the pandemic when it comes to foster care?
DeGarmo: We are going to see an increase in a few things. All these children are home. They are not going to school. You have parents right now who are suffering. Suffering from their own depression or health, suffering from lack of jobs or will I have a job, can I get money, how can I feed my kids, whatever it might be, and their worries and fears about the pandemic. Some of these parents are going to lash out and they are going to abuse their kids.
So we’re going to see a rise in child abuse. At the same time we’re not going to see these kids as reported. We’re going to miss the mandated reporting from the teachers. Kids are also not going to get support from child welfare agencies right now or foster care agencies, child welfare workers because the workers are themselves at home. On top of that, our children are spending a lot of time online and predators recognize that.
So those kids who are suffering from abuse, those kids who are in the foster care system, they are going online to try to escape their anxiety, to try to find somebody who will befriend them. When this all clears up my concern is that we are going to have a number of children run away to their new friends, if you will, and become victims of human trafficking.
YT: When kids become invisible, it’s hard to figure out how to combat this. What do you think people should be doing to try to keep these kids safe?
DeGarmo: Parents have to check in with what their kids are doing online. And some parents may say, “That’s invading my child’s privacy. I don’t want to do that.” I say, “No. You’re not invading their privacy. You’re protecting your child.” In regards to child abuse, it’s a hard time right now because all of us are in our homes, but we need to take the role on as citizens and be mandated reporters. If we suspect anything, we need to report it.
Now that’s hard. It’s hard because some people say, “You know what, I don’t see the kids. They only come outside for a short amount of time,” or, “I know my neighbor. I don’t want to report my neighbor. It’s embarrassing for me to do that.” Well, my response is that there’s a child out there right now who may be living next to you who is hoping and praying that you do report them. Hoping and praying that you do rescue them. So if you do suspect something’s going on you really need to report that for the sake of the child. Forget about your own embarrassment, your own concerns. You have to report it. You’ve got to be your own mandated reporter. And we need to be more vigilant about it particularly during this time of the coronavirus.
YT: When it comes to the agencies themselves, what more do you think they could be doing to protect these kids or do they have to rely on the community to help them?
DeGarmo: I think caseworkers need to be doing digital conferences and phone calls with the kids and the foster parents. Check in with them digitally through Skype, Zoom or Facebook Messenger, or just picking up the phone and calling. They need to be texting their foster parents saying “Hey, do you have everything you need right now? Is there anything I can help you with?”
They’ve really got to check in. Foster parents feel like they’re not getting support right now. Foster parents feel like they’re not getting the resources right now. Caseworkers feel overworked, overwhelmed, under-resourced, and they certainly are underpaid. And right now caseworkers are scrambling to try to figure out how to get the foster parents the support that they need. We’re going to see foster parents quit because they are so filled with anxiety right now.
Foster parents are thinking, “I got to take care of my own job. I got to teach this kid. I’ve got to be their professional therapist.” These kids are not getting their professional counseling sessions, they’re not getting their drug counseling, they’re not getting visitations with their own birth parents. The kids’ anxiety levels are off the charts so foster parents are struggling with that.
Everybody is affected right now. The child welfare agencies need to spend more time reaching out to foster parents and the children in foster care. Just check up on them, give them the best support they can, find new ways to support them, and be ready to work really hard when the doors open up because we’re going to have a lot of foster parents filled with anxiety.
YT: What do you think the agencies should do for the kids that they don’t know about right now?
DeGarmo: What a hard question that is. I’m hearing from some caseworkers, “We are concerned about the coronavirus ourselves. We don’t have the proper medical equipment in order to go into a home that might have symptoms of the virus. I don’t want to go to that home and get sick myself, then expose my own family.” In some larger cities you might want to have people in the medical field attend a visitation to a home that is suspected of child abuse but right now really the best thing that they can do is for those homes that are suspected of child abuse, to place a phone call to them at the very least.
Now the problem is this: A child welfare worker calls up and says “Hey, we had a report.” The birth parent can lie! “Oh nothing’s happening here.” Or let’s say the child welfare worker goes to the house and the birth parent says, “We have the coronavirus here. Please don’t come into the house.” They turn around and walk back to the car. So it’s going to be really hard right now to protect these children during this pandemic.
At least 5 minutes a day
YT: What’s your advice to foster parents?
DeGarmo: They’ve got to find five minutes for themselves at the very least. Foster parents have to take care of themselves first and foremost. Because as their anxiety level grows, as their own stress grows, when they become burned out, when they suffer from compassion fatigue, when they suffer from all of these things, they’re not going to be able to help. If they can’t take care of themselves, there’s no way they can take care of the children placed in their home. They can’t take care of their own birth children. They can’t take care of themselves. So foster parents need to make sure they’re caring for themselves first. It’s going to be so hard right now when we’re all stuck together in the same house 24 hours a day.
It might look like walking into the closet for five minutes, getting up a little bit earlier in the morning and having some time to yourself, escaping on a walk by yourself. If my wife is feeling overly stressed, she might say to me, “I need 15 minutes alone. Can you watch the kids?” We take turns when one of us is feeling overly exhausted to keep each other fresh. If foster parents do not give themselves at least a little bit of time every day to fill their own cup, to recharge their own battery if just a little bit, then they’re going to be so depleted, so exhausted, so burnt out, so worn out that they can’t care for anybody else in their home.
Also, connect yourself to some sort of support group. No one understands a foster parent like another foster parent, not even caseworkers. I’ve been doing this for 18 years and my own family members don’t understand what I do. It’s a whole different lifestyle when you bring a child with trauma into your household. Usually foster parents go to work, and they can find a little bit of relief.
So right now I’m telling foster parents to find some type of support group online so you could find support from your fellow foster parents, get the answers to the questions that you have that only your fellow foster parents can understand and ask for help. I also encourage foster parents to make sure they get training. We have over 50 hours of online training webinars that cover everything — anger management, disobedience, reactive attachment disorder, positive parenting skills, trauma-informed parenting; you name it, it’s there. We tell foster parents to spend 30 minutes to an hour watching a webinar so you can better help the child.
Changes at group home
YT: Do you currently have kids in the residential home that you opened?
DeGarmo: Yes we do. Absolutely.
YT: What are some of the issues you’re facing there?
DeGarmo: Many of our staff are concerned about coronavirus. The boys are unable to get some of the services that they need due to the fact that we’re in a lockdown. They were getting musical therapy once a week, they were getting animal therapy once a week, art therapy once a week. Those services have closed. I was visiting with them earlier today and, you know, like most teenage boys they’re a little bit bored right now. But we have so much going on in place. In fact as I speak to you they are volunteering at our local food bank delivering food to homes.
YT: How is it adjusting to the pandemic? How are they social distancing? Sanitizing?
DeGarmo: Fantastic. My wife is a doctor of nutrition and naturopathic medicine so we have been focusing on these things all along well before we had the pandemic. Hygiene’s a big focus of ours. Many of these boys are coming from environments where they have no hygiene taught to them whatsoever. So we focus on hygiene, we focus on keeping clean, we focus on washing hands, we focus on disinfectants, we focus on healthy nutritional meals. So that has not been a challenge for us because that was already in place.
YT: And what about maintaining distance from each other physically?
DeGarmo: The boys all have their own separate rooms. So we have that. And then they are able to distance themselves. We have a very large dining table and they are able to go outside. We have property where they are able to go outside and play.
YT: Do you have any plans for if someone does get sick, staff or child?
DeGarmo: We have a nurse that will be able to respond to that.
YT: Do you think if someone does get sick, the state of Georgia who placed those kids with you provide support?
DeGarmo: Yes. I do believe so. I said earlier that we had a placement call for a child today or yesterday so in that regard, the placement calls have not stopped. They have not stopped. In fact, perhaps they’ve even picked up because there’s so many youths who are homeless or have been abandoned and right now that’s showing up because we’re supposed to be staying in place. These kids have no place to go!
YT: Has the state offered any advice or said that if a child who is placed with you does get coronavirus what their protocol will be?
DeGarmo: I’m not in charge of the day-to-day operations with Never Too Late. But I will say this: Child welfare agencies right now across the country are doing the same thing they are in Georgia and that is scrambling to find the answers that they need during this time. That’s one of the things child welfare is struggling with right now. What are we going to do? No one even envisioned this. All the rules have kind of gone out the window as we are creating new rules.