Thoughts on Impact of COVID-19 on Child Welfare System

Children all over America are feeling anxious, unsettled and unsafe because of the fast-escalating spread of the coronavirus. Younger children are reverting back to outgrown behaviors such as thumb-sucking and bathroom accidents. Teenagers are experiencing dramatic mood swings and becoming more fearful and irritable.

So imagine the challenge of these unprecedented times on children in foster care—those in private homes and those in group residences. “These are children who have already experienced trauma and loss because they were separated from their birth families,” says Janaeyah Reid, an adoption and permanency worker with Gemma, an organization that serves vulnerable children and families in Philadelphia and its suburbs. “Disruption of normal activities such as school, social distancing from friends and fear of getting sick themselves feels overwhelming and difficult to process,” says Reid.

“And now they are separated from their supports—the people they have come to know and rely on. Working with them virtually can’t bring them the comfort, healing and sense of safety they absolutely need. And we can’t tell them it will be better next week or next month because we don’t know that it will.”

Child welfare staff are grappling with what to do now…how do they deliver by phone or video conversations the human connection they have built with the children? How can a telephone call take the place of a once-a-week face-to-face visit with a reassuring psychiatrist that a child is just beginning to trust?

The toll on social workers is physical and emotional. They worry about getting sick themselves and putting their families at risk. Child welfare workers in New York, Washington, Michigan and other states have already tested positive for the virus. What will it take to usher the most vulnerable children through this crisis? And what will the fallout be? What are the implications for the future?

Meanwhile, the message from mental health practitioners for those in child welfare is to keep calm and avoid panic. Panic is more easily transmitted to children than the virus itself.