As Coronavirus Shutdowns Grow, Resource Families Left With Little Direction

By Kim Phagan-Hansel

As coronavirus continues to impact Americans on all fronts – from toilet paper shortages to event cancellations and school closings – the frontline caregivers for many of the country’s foster youth have suddenly been caught off guard.

Resource families and kinship caregivers have found themselves on very short notice, scrambling to find daycare for children or figure out how to keep kids occupied for weeks as schools are closing around the country. Across several social media platforms, many caregivers are reporting they’ve heard very little, if anything, from agencies about supports, changes to visitation or what to do in case of being quarantined.

Foster parent Dawna Harris, who works at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, has taken measures to prepare for worst-case scenarios the last few weeks, but has not heard a single word from her agency. In Illinois, there have been 12 positive cases.

“I’m more prepared because I’m taking it seriously,” Harris said. “It concerns me people aren’t prepared.”

While said she feels prepared if she’s asked to quarantine with a couple weeks worth of supplies, she is more concerned that the daycare her 2- and 3-year-old adopted and foster children attend may close. As a single parent, she doesn’t have a lot of options but is still required to go to work.

“I can’t bring my kids to work,” Harris said. 

Next week a termination of parental rights hearing is scheduled for one of the children in her care, but she hasn’t heard anything about court closures or received any guidance either from Illinois Department of Children and Families Services, that she’s licensed with, or from the children’s agency, Volunteers of America.

Another single foster parent in North Carolina, Shaunetta Wilson, is especially concerned about her 15-year-old autistic foster son’s school and after-school programs closing in the coming weeks. As a Medicaid caseworker in North Carolina’s Davidson County, working from home most likely won’t be an option. 

“I’m not sure what I’d do,” Wilson said. “I’m not sure my job is going to guarantee that I have a job if I have to stay home for an extended period of time.”

She has struggled in the past to get health care services for the child in her care because of his mother’s recognized religious exemptions to treatment for her children. Just a year ago when he was sick with influenza, Tamiflu and even Tylenol couldn’t be provided to support his health care.

“My concern is he will get sick and she will refuse treatment for him,” Wilson said. “We could never get a judge to go against her religious expectations and couldn’t even give Tylenol.”

Despite all of these concerns, Wilson has only received a text message today letting her know that no one should visit the office.In North Carolina there have been 15 positive cases.

National Foster Parent Association Executive Director Irene Clements said she’s heard very little of extra supports and services being put into place around the country for families who might be impacted.

“It’s going to be huge for these families who don’t have someone who stays home,” Clements said. “It really presents a problem for these families.”

So far, they also haven’t fielded very many calls to their foster family hotline, but as the situation continues to develop, Clements expects to hear more. Right now she’s encouraging resource families to “pay attention to what their state health department and [the] CDC are reporting to keep themselves and their families safe.”

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network has developed a guide for families, mostly providing basic information about coronavirus, linking to the Centers for Disease Control’s many resources as well. The CDC has also issued its own guide on dealing with mental health and coping during the epidemic.

While the Children’s Bureau Associate Commissioner issued a special statement Thursday about the coronavirus, he focused on the outbreak’s impacts on foster youth at colleges and universities that were closing without mentioning the impacts on caregivers of children and youth in foster care.

Clements, who has been a foster parent for decades, offered some advice for families who suddenly have more together time. Having been impacted by hurricanes and flooding in the past that have created school closures, Clements found that alternating productive tasks with fun activities helped keep squabbles at bay.

“It gives you something to think about,” Clements said. “Play something where you can laugh. Everybody helped cook – that can take time. When they weren’t busy is when they started flights.

“Keep calm, use prudent thinking and be observant.”

In several Facebook groups information on talking to kids about coronavirus and how to make hand-washing fun are circulating.

Looking for other things to do:

  • Museums Offer Virtual Tours Online
  • Print out coloring pages
  • Check out Sesame Street’s character Karli who is a muppet in foster care. Sesame Street has several videos and activities based on Karli’s story.
  • Consider creating an art corner in your home.
  • Cook some special foods together as a family.

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