By Adam Pertman

Senior Consultant, Stewards of Change Institute

The coronavirus crisis has put children in foster care – and those who need to be there – at serious risk in numerous, unnerving ways. To date, however, they and their families have barely been mentioned as potential victims of the pandemic, and the federal government has done too little to help them. That has to change as quickly as possible, either with targeted resources in the next economic stimulus bill or in separate legislation explicitly designed to assist the millions of people in this particularly vulnerable population.

Here’s the starkest example of the harm many professionals fear is already occurring: that an unknowable number of these girls and boys are being physically or emotionally injured today, right now, as you read this. But some are not being removed from their abusers’ homes because social workers (like many other people nationwide still trying to do their jobs) are stymied by a lack of resources; because the reporting of suspected abuse and neglect cases is dropping as would-be reporters hunker down and tend to their own concerns; and because some workers can’t leave their own homes, even to investigate complaints of child maltreatment.

To make matters worse, mental health professionals agree the mistreatment of children increases during periods of high stress. And we all know that we’re not only living in such a period, but also that it will more stressful for some time. Now add to this reality the fact that children’s emotional and physical injuries are very often detected and reported by teachers and other personnel in school; that families struggling to care for children with special needs aren’t receiving critical services and supports; that recruitment and training of foster and adoptive families are at a standstill; and that these are only a few examples of the unfolding tragedies that child welfare, medical, mental health and other practitioners are seeing in every community of every state nationwide.

It’s a formula for disaster for a population that was already vulnerable before this historic public health calamity began, and it will have equally far-reaching consequences for our country more broadly, because the personal, economic and social impact will ripple throughout society if we don’t start responding soon.

As a start, a broad coalition of local, state and national organizations that focus on child welfare – including the National Center on Adoption and Permanency, which I lead – has submitted a letter to congressional leaders in both houses calling for legislation that would provide billions of additional federal dollars to take specific actions that include:

  • Supporting families to keep children safe through activities such as bolstering locally driven prevention programs and diminishing the need for out-of-home placements;
  • Strengthening response and intervention systems by increasing funding to find relatives to care for children, to provide technology and protective resources for workers so they’re safe when they assist families, and to mitigate the pandemic’s impact on child welfare courts;
  • Addressing the needs of older youth already in or transitioning out of foster care by giving states additional money and flexibility in areas such as jobs, housing and financial support.

As lawmakers and the president set their priorities during the coming days and months, they need to know that this is not a small, niche group looking for its share of federal largess during tough times. Here, with statistics from Child Trends, is a glimpse of the population that needs our attention and assistance:

  • 7 million infants, toddlers and children with disabilities who, with their families, are struggling with the sudden absence of health services and learning accommodations; another 43,000 are youth living in juvenile justice facilities, where social separation is tough to achieve;
  • 8 million children being cared for by grandparents and others who are elderly – that is, adults at increased risk of complications associated with the coronavirus;
  • Almost a half-million children (most with special needs) living in foster homes, some with families unprepared for long-term placements and others waiting to return to their parents;
  • 5 million children living with at least one unauthorized immigrant parent, meaning high stress and a lower likelihood of their families applying for social services or having health insurance.

Legislative action is needed ASAP to start helping these children and families, but far more also must be done. Indeed, a strategy has to be developed to deal with the longer-term, transformative effects that the pandemic will inevitably have on the child welfare system – as it will on so many others.

First, however, immediate problems have to be addressed. Children being abused and neglected, from coast to coast, is an urgent one. Congress and the President simply have to step up. Now.

Adam Pertman, working from home in Massachusetts, is a Senior Consultant to Stewards of Change Institute and the National Interoperability Collaborative. He is also President of the National Center on Adoption and Permanency. Also contributing to this commentary were NCAP team members Allison Maxon Davis, Carol Bishop, Laura Ornelas and Ron Huxley in California; Carol Biddle in Georgia; Susan Livingston Smith in North Carolina; Jeanne Howard in Illinois; and Lynn Gabbard in Connecticut.

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Adam Pertman is a Senior Consultant to SOCI, where his roles include Coordination and Communications Director of NIC. Previously, he was a Pulitzer-nominated journalist with the Boston Globe, and then a leading expert in his field as head of the Donaldson Adoption Institute. Pertman is also President of the National Center on Adoption and Permanency, whose mission is to move child welfare to a new paradigm focused on enabling children and families to succeed. Pertman has given hundreds of keynotes and trainings across the U.S. and internationally. He has appeared widely in the media in this country and others, and has received numerous awards for his work for children and families. His book Adoption Nation was reviewed as “the most important book ever written on the subject.”

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  • I would like to offer a slightly different view of the landscape.  While I don't speak for my State, I do support the people that do this work on a daily basis.  I think we all share the concern that Covid 19 does put children more at risk, as it does for victims of other forms of domestic violence.  The need for more funding is also a shared concern.  

    At the ground level, the practices of child welfare are continuing to evolve through this crisis.  The limits of social distancing have seen the emergence of technology on a grand scale.  Families who may have had transportation challenges in the past are now connecting with their children via Facetime, Teams and Zoom.  Spot home visits are being done with smart phones.  Workers are in the community with tablets rather than in the office.  While these are being done out of necessity, it represents the evolving nature of child welfare that will live on well beyond this crisis.  Along with numerous changes in policy, these technology changes have occured on a large scale over a matter of weeks.  The HHS grants for mental health services and FCC grants for telehealth are going to take many of these changes even further.  

    Covid 19 presents us with many challenges.  It also presents us with opportunities to cast aside practices that may no longer serve us.  It will allow us to discover new ways to serve the people who need it most.   While things are still in a state of flux, we should use this as an opportunity to push things in new directions.

    • Thanks for your comments, Robert. I agree with you absolutely that this unprecedented crisis also opens the door to new opportunities such as those you laid out in the world of child welfare. So, as we strive to address the problems (in this case, child abuse and neglect) I join you in urging that we make the time to assess what works and what doesn't, so that the future does indeed get better for vulnerable children and their families. 


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