The current COVID-19 crisis has taught us two important lessons about the child welfare system in the United States. First, it has exacerbated weak points in our systems of care and showed us areas needing improvement, including the need to streamline services for children and families. Second, it has shown how child welfare agencies, courts, and community partners can creatively adapt to rise and meet the challenges from this pandemic. While COVID-19 may be forcing processes to happen a little differently—for example, holding court hearings virtually—across the country people are stepping up to continue moving forward the permanency processes for children in foster care.
Take the story of the Fields family in Kentucky, for example. Andy and Kayla Fields started the adoption process for three siblings in their care last year, and when the pandemic hit, they were certain it would be delayed until it was over. They were surprised and delighted to find out they could still finalize their adoptions from home via a Zoom call with the judge. While the kids were already considered family, they are all celebrating that it has finally been made official.
In Michigan, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Michigan Supreme Court’s State Court Administrative Office announced they were working to quickly move children in foster care to permanency in the midst of COVID-19. In this instance, they have been looking at approximately 200 cases where children are close to being able to return home to their parents. This rapid permanency process utilizes a team approach to these reunifications, mobilizing caseworkers, judges, and lawyers to work together to analyze cases and determine the necessary supports and services for the families. They use virtual court hearings and try, when possible, to resolve issues without hearings to reduce delays and keep the permanency process moving.
One population particularly vulnerable right now are youth aging out of foster care who were not able to achieve permanency. Already a difficult transition to navigate, the current pandemic has complicated things even more. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine announced in April that more than 200 teens were poised to turn 18 and age out of care over the following three months, and that he wanted to ensure "no child leaves care without a safe place to call home." Ohio's Bridges Program extends funds and housing for youth who emancipate from care between the ages of 18 and 20, and, in light of the circumstances from COVID-19, now includes youth turning 21. These older youth can keep their housing and jobs and continue to pursue an education.
These are just a few examples of the creativity we are seeing across the country. From utilizing technology to make processes more efficient, such as allowing electronic signatures for court documents, or finding ways to more quickly achieve permanency for children poised to be reunified or adopted, child welfare is rising to the challenge. As states have gradually begun reopening, these innovative approaches implemented during the pandemic hopefully will inspire new positive changes in child welfare systems across the country.