Foster Care, Juvenile Detention, and Adoption in the Time of Coronavirus

Sierra Lloyd, Editor

During this time of coronavirus and a nation-wide quarantine, while most kids across the country have transitioned into online school, there are some kids without even a home to shelter in. For children in the foster care system, COVID 19 has added to the constant instability in their lives. Teenagers in juvenile detention are facing outbreaks within the facilities. Even adoptions of children no more than a few months old are being derailed. As is the case in most disasters, contagion, economic crash, or otherwise, the most vulnerable people are hit the hardest. And there are few more vulnerable than children left without the support of family.


Like the rest of the country, the nation’s child fostering process has come to a temporary standstill. While to-be foster parents can complete the initial process towards licensure online, many aspects of their vetting are impossible under shelter-in-place orders, such as home inspections. This further limits the already too scarce number of foster homes available. Children, who while part of child protection programs or under court order have scheduled times to see their birth parents, are having those visits be cancelled. Slow-downs in family courts are causing children to have to stay in foster care for longer before being reunited with their parents. 

More concerning for experts, however, is the impact that quarantine will have on children not yet accounted for in the system. Abuse, be that emotional or physical, becomes much more prevalent in high-stress situations, which accounts for the rise in domestic and child abuse cases in times of events such as economic downturn. With schools closed and teachers and school staff, who normally have an eye out for alleged abuse, not seeing kids, it is largely up to the public to spot such signs. In the meantime, child and family protective services are doing their best to continue to serve the public. Many of their staff continue to work, while utilizing protective gear such as masks and gloves. Bobby Cagle, the director of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, reports, speaking to NPR, “There may be a time where we have to begin to do contact based upon risk to children and families. Taking the most risky ones first. Thankfully, we’re not there at this point.” 


Foster kids aren’t the only ones experiencing extended isolation from loved ones. Most juvenile detentions have suspended in-person family visits, and juvenile court has in many places been shut down, delaying the chance for children’s lawyers to be able to argue they should be sent home. In response to such realities, there has been substantial outcry from public defenders, who argue youth who are not safety risks should be released. 

Inside the juvenile detention centers, inmates and staff face the challenge of practicing social distancing while in a confined, busy living space. “We are on the brink of the nightmare scenario,” warned Dr. Kim Cullen, a physician in Denver and one of the authors of an open letter to governors and state justice officials from a group of concerned doctors. “If there isn’t swift action to move children out of these environments where this virus can spread like wildfire,” Cullen said in a statement to NBC News, “we are just providing the kindling.” Experts are especially concerned about youth in juvenile detention as they are more likely than their peers to have underlying health issues, which increase the risk of severe coronavirus symptoms. 


While the coronavirus has complicated adoptions and fostering everywhere, international adoptions have been the hardest hit. Families looking to adopt from China, including those as far along in the process as simply needing to be united with their child, have not been able to proceed since the outbreak began in the country at the beginning of the year. Cady Driver, who along with her husband was looking forward to adopting 2-year old Ella in February, says of the situation, speaking to the New York Times, “It makes me feel very sad and frustrated. We’ve been waiting so long to meet her and make her a part of our family, but we are resigned to waiting it out for the good of everyone. Within the adoption community on social media, parents are just devastated that they can’t go get their children, but I mean, obviously, we want to be safe.” Ella as of now remains in China. 


As has been widely reported, animal shelters across the country have been emptied as people take cats and dogs into their homes. For children, unfortunately, that is not the case. A shortage of foster families willing to take in new children during the pandemic, as well as a number of foster teens aging out of the system with nowhere to go, creates dangerous situations. Like that of many other systems in the United States (such as health care, government emergency response, etc.), the fragility of institutions involved in child welfare are becoming apparent in the face of this crisis. And as a result, kids are being put in harm’s way.