Greg Eubanks, Holt’s VP for U.S. foster care and adoption, shares how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting foster families and children this National Foster Care Awareness Month — and why we urgently need new families to say ‘yes’ to fostering.
None of us imagined it would feel ‘normal’ to carry out our work in isolation, particularly when that work is so focused on human interaction and relationships. In Holt’s foster care program, we work every day with vulnerable children as our focus. These particular children live in our state, our county, and our neighborhood.
They are children who state officials have made the agonizing decision to remove from their parents, for their own protection, and find temporary families for them until their biological parents can receive help — help improving parenting skills, and help addressing the generational impact of trauma, addiction, unemployment or underemployment, anger management, or destructive relationships.
In the meantime, children need an alternative family setting, either with their extended family or a fostering family. At Holt, we’ve been working to build a network of families in Washington and Oregon to provide foster care for children of all ages. Our families might hope, one day, to adopt, but they are increasingly setting aside their own motivations to prioritize the children and youth who need a safe and stable family now — some for a short time and others for a lifetime.
One might think this is a new paradigm for an organization so deeply rooted in adoption, but for decades Holt has worked around the world to help children remain in the loving care of their biological families, and our domestic foster care programs help to do just that, right here in the USA.
But this work is also increasingly difficult as we isolate and maintain social distance — for good reason! While we work to maintain connections between fostered children and relatives, while we work to recruit and support fostering families to do this work, we’re also experiencing exponential stress, for both children and the families who care for them.
The Need is Now, and the Need Continues
But perhaps the greatest need during this extraordinary crisis is among the children and teenagers who do not have a safe, stable home to shelter in place during the pandemic. Every day, kids continue to enter the foster care system. In some cases, the pressures have caused foster placements to break down, and so children continue to need families. Thankfully, Holt families keep raising their hands, saying, “I’ll be an option!” Others continue to work through the certification process so they will be ready when the time comes, while still others are reaching out and asking questions — learning about the process as they consider how they might help a vulnerable child.
Those of us in child welfare fear an influx of children into the system once we all return to school and into society. Right now, we’re in a waiting period. Although professionals fear the impact of stay-at-home orders on mental health, domestic violence, and child abuse, hotlines and call centers are eerily quiet.
All of us are struggling right now. The days linger, one after another, stretching onward in confinement and seemingly without end. Tensions rise, incomes fall, and bills keep coming. Inevitably, conflict follows, with the occasional outburst. We all feel it, the ever-present irritability or the tears that peek out constantly from behind our eyes. For some families, who were at their limits before this pandemic ever started, their stressors are extremely high. Their conflict is exponentially more impactful, and their outbursts are more harmful, with children as targets, bearing the impact of the adult-size pressures of this pandemic.
At such a time, however, with the risk of abuse greater than normal due to intense economic and emotional stress — call centers are actually reporting decreased intakes. Why? Because these children are isolated. No one knows about it, because no one sees. Children aren’t interacting with their neighbors, teachers, doctors, or others who would alert authorities to any concerns. Right now, there’s no one to tell.
When the country reopens, this will change, and at-risk children are going to need us all. We anticipate the need will be urgent, and children will need families to say ‘yes’ to foster care. At Holt, our role is to prepare and train families to welcome a child into your home. If you are willing and able, then now is the time to prepare!
A New, Pressurized Reality for Children, Teens and Fostering Families
The screw is also tightening for Holt’s current fostering families, as it is for all families around the globe. Parents are struggling through ever-changing employment realities, course-correcting through reduced incomes, and are assuming new in-home roles of teacher, physician, activity director and therapist.
Without minimizing the pressures faced by all of us right now, I want to pull back the curtain on life as a fostering family, and life right now as a child or teenager in foster care.
Let’s start where we always should: with the perspective of fostered youth. Imagine yourself in their reality.
From the start, your childhood experience has been tough. Maybe your mom is struggling alone and fighting an addiction. Or perhaps she is doing her best, working multiple jobs without a livable wage to try to maintain the most basic necessities of life, and you are left to grow increasingly self-sufficient. Or maybe the pressures on your parents are so dire that you became the target of their frustrations.
After building and building, the intensity blows up, and you pay the price on the receiving end of emotional or physical abuse. Regardless, though, this is your family, and you love them. You also know the predicable behavioral patterns, the hiding spots, and the neighborhood safe zones. Often, you can navigate your treacherous reality, but you can’t feel the temperature of the pot of water you’re in climbing, nearing a boil.
One day, the police arrive and arrest you. That’s how it feels, anyway. You are taken away and told you will be getting a new family, just not today. So you sleep on a couch in a cinderblock office building with a nice-enough person wearing a lanyard and a clipboard. After a week and a half spending each night in a different hotel with different people, you still have no idea what happened to your parents, and these new adults never seem to have enough time or answers.
Finally, you stuff your few belongings into a trash bag and climb into a car with yet another new adult. She tells you that she is taking you to a new family. That lasts four days, but who knows why. After a couple of nights in another hotel, you move in with another family, and after a few nights with them, another. And then another. That was a few months ago. Now, you’re behind in school because you missed so much of it. Also, who cares about homework when you don’t really know if there’s going to be a ‘home’ tonight or not? Adults keep making promises to you that don’t come true, and you are becoming increasingly sad, scared and angry. It shows.
Finally, you move in with a family and each day, they show up. The same school, day after day, with the same teachers. The same bed, the same people. By now, you’ve had a couple of visits with your mom, and one with your dad.
And then the pandemic hits.
No more visits. No more school. Your questions remain, though. But now, no one can answer any of them, and your anger returns. Your sadness is back, stronger than ever. The park down the street is closed, with police tape around it. You’ve seen that before, and you don’t like how you feel when you see it. Not at all. More anger.
And there’s no fun to distract you. No friends. No play. Nothing but sorrow, fear, and something that feels more like rage.
And now, imagine the fostering parents’ perspective.
After investing weeks of energy building a connection with this child who has been so withdrawn and has seemed so melancholy, you begin to develop a tenuous bond. You look forward to watching him progress academically. You work with his pediatrician to find a path to better nutrition, and he starts growing. After an exhausting search, you find a trauma-informed therapist, and this child begins to trust her, through her patience, presence and play.
And then the pandemic hits.
And all of that is gone. Every last bit of it. Now it’s all up to you, and the pressure is building. What you wouldn’t give for a babysitter and a date night. You all need a break, and fast. But it’s not coming.
You realize, however, this child deserves every last bit of your attention and creativity. And so, you wake up each day, breathe in and out, and put one foot in front of the other.
Thank God for your Holt worker, who ‘gets it,’ and who seems to always answer when you call or text.
Serving Children and Families from a Distance
As the world seems to burn, our foster care team meets new challenges with a creativity and energy of which I am in awe. Even though, some days, each one of us recoils at the thought of another online meeting, Holt’s team is responding with the following efforts, and I couldn’t be prouder of them:
- We have sung happy birthday and sent creative videos to a few kids on our caseload who have celebrated in solitude with their fostering families, isolated from friends and relatives.
- Some have offered to babysit ‘virtually’ by reading books or playing games with kids via videoconference, allowing foster parents to have a micro-respite. At other times, we’ve entertained kids online so parents could have a thoughtful conversation with the child’s attorney, state caseworker, or court-appointed advocate.
- Each Holt foster care employee is reaching out, almost daily, to families via text or phone or email. Most often, the most meaningful support is a reframe of each family’s efforts. We’re reminding families that, right now, academic progress isn’t the real goal. No, you’re not a trained teacher, and that’s ok. You are connecting with this child and offering your presence in a way that might not be possible normally. Our message is, we see you. We appreciate you. You’ve got this, and we are giving you a standing ovation, from far away, over the internet, but still.
- By helping families find creative solutions to problems, many are connecting with these children in ways not previously achieved, and kids routinely describe this as a bright spot in their dark world. One family found a way to move, exercise, and bond through Pokémon GO!
- We’re taking on a lot of legwork for families right now. When they have questions about resources, court hearings, explanations behind delays, how best to monitor online ‘visits’ between children and relatives, or any other myriad of problems, Holt staff act swiftly to chase down information, ideas and solutions.
- As a team, we’ve launched an online support group for families. We’ve identified creative ways to help families in process to continue that process even when it’s not safe for us to spend time together face to face.
We’re also maintaining our focus on being ready when our worlds begin to open up again, because there are children right now who will need us ready to show up in the coming weeks and months.
Are you able to help?
We can help you be ready to foster when a child needs you to step up! Or if fostering’s not for you, I invite you to make a donation to support children in the foster care system right now and in the coming months. Your gift will go directly to support fostered children and the families who care for them. It will also help provide training and homestudy assessments to certify new fostering families who will stand ready to welcome children as soon as possible, whether for a short time or a lifetime.
Greg Eubanks | Holt VP for Foster Care & Adoption
Or reach out to Holt’s foster care and adoption team directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 206.468.2031. Even if you don’t live in Oregon or Washington, we can point you in the right direction.