Families in Limbo: Coronavirus Hobbles Reunifications from Foster Care

This story was produced as part of a larger project led by Jeremy Loudenback, a participant in the 2020 California Fellowship.

Other stories in this series include:

For Foster Youth, Stability Is Even Harder to Find During the Pandemic

Dependency Court Backlog Finds Many Los Angeles Children Still in Limbo

By Jeremy Loudenback and John Kelly

This week was supposed to be a triumphant one for Northern California mother of two, a 39-year-old home health aide. Soon after a long-scheduled court date at the Sonoma County Hall of Justice this week, she imagined she would soon be able to gather her 1-year-old daughter in her arms at last and end what has been the most terrifying experience of her life: the seven months her toddler has spent in foster care.

Instead, in the upended world of the coronavirus pandemic, the wrenching family separation has dragged on, and the mother is still waiting for Sonoma County child welfare authorities and the juvenile court to allow her to welcome her daughter home. 

“It breaks my heart that I can’t see my child right now,” the mother said. “I can’t hold her. I can’t comfort her when she’s getting frustrated.”

Under state and federal law, parents with children in foster care are subject to strict timelines to comply with court orders, under threat of losing permanent custody of their children. 

Yet with COVID-19 continuing its deadly rampage across the globe, courts nationwide that decide which children will go home from foster care, and when, are mostly shuttered to the public to slow its spread. In many courts, only the most “essential” hearings now take place – and only when all parties can be dialed in and proceedings can be conducted virtually.

Meanwhile, county child welfare agencies tasked with providing the services parents need to perform before their children can be returned are also hobbled by the aftermath of the outbreak. Many anger management classes, drug treatment programs and domestic violence counseling sessions are either not being held or are being delivered scattershot, with questionable effectiveness, by video or phone. 

The third blow is the inability of separated families to connect. In many communities across the country, family contact that is already often scant and heavily monitored is now barely occurring, with public health mandates suspending visits between foster youth and their parents and siblings, or scaling them back to often-frustrating phone chats. 

The accumulation of pressures on already high-stakes and beleaguered systems – disproportionately involving people of color and the poor – has left parents who are working toward reuniting with their children wondering if that work has been undone by this public health crisis.

Lately, there are no more face-to-face visits between the Sonoma County mom and her toddler. And their FaceTime calls have been more frustrating than gratifying.  

“She sees me on the screen and then she’s looking around to see if I’ll pop out,” said the Sonoma mother, who is not being named to protect her daughter’s confidential case. “She’s reaching out to me, she wants to grab me but she can’t. She tries. It’s a very unbearable thing.”

Families in ‘Scary No-Man’s Land’

The damage the coronavirus pandemic has wrought on society in all realms has been immense – freezing life for much of the globe and driving millions of people to the unemployment rolls. But U.S. child welfare systems and the families they serve are facing a particular and less-acknowledged set of challenges, as shelter-in-place orders enter their fifth week. 

“It’s a scary no-man’s land,” said former National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges President Darlene Byrne, a dependency court judge in Texas. In that state, the Supreme Court has issued an order allowing judges to suspend foster care reunification timelines during the coronavirus pandemic. “I don’t know when our governor and Supreme Court is going to lift the state of emergency,” Byrne said. In the meantime, “That really puts families in a state of limbo.”

The systemic slowdown of family reunification has alarmed federal officials, who even before the crisis had been advocating for less use of foster care in America and more investment in the prevention of abuse and neglect. They have begun publicly urging child welfare officials not to impose punitive measures on the blameless. 

“If services can’t be provided, we have to be mindful and not enforce timelines in a way that penalizes parents,” said David Kelly, a top official at the U.S. Children’s Bureau, in a webinar last week that was viewed by thousands of professionals. 

Under federal law, government agencies must make “reasonable efforts” to help parents reunify with children placed in foster care, a total of 263,000 in the most recent national count. The reunification agreements are contingent on counties providing those families with services such as counseling or drug treatment. 

With some exceptions, if a child has been in foster care for 15 out of the last 22 months, and the parents were offered but did not complete court-ordered services, courts must terminate the biological parent’s custody rights and seek an adoptive home.

Those timelines can be even more accelerated for babies and toddlers. In California, most parents of children younger than 3 must make progress on court-ordered programs in just six months. Parents have to prove in court they have visited regularly, attended parenting classes, treatment programs or counseling sessions, and remained sober. 

Yet in the age of coronavirus, the availability of those services has become spotty – at times available online, such as Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, other times not. 

Patchwork visitation policies with foster children have also been a source of confusion, with counties including Los Angeles and Riverside in California halting in-person visits for fear of the spreading virus, and New York City continuing to allow them.

And until laws change or courts issue emergency policies, the reunification clock is still ticking, despite the coronavirus-imposed societal shutdown. That has left kids without their parents, and parents without their kids wondering when – if ever – they will be reunited.

Foster youth “are being retraumatized with the cancellation of visits,” said Melissa Villagomez, a former San Diego foster youth now working for a family services agency. Villagomez, now 31, said visits with her mom, especially on holidays, were treasured memories. 

Over the recent holiday weekend, she worried about the many youth in care who weren’t able to go home for an Easter visit with their families. 

“When our hour was over it was devastating to me,” Villagomez said of her visits with her mom as a foster youth. “When they got canceled, it threw off my whole day. And my foster family had to deal with my temper.”

‘My Kids Are Hurt, They’re Crying’

Hillary and Kevin Brabyn of Delta County, Michigan, are among those whose reunification path has been muddled amid the pandemic.

The Brabyns’s case, overseen by the tribal court of the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians, involves the couple’s two daughters, 2 and 5. The children were taken into foster care in the remote tribal community tucked into national forest land along the Great Lakes following abuse and neglect allegations in March 2019.

According to an email from the Brabyns’s attorney, as long as Kevin Brabyn continues to show clean drug tests, reunification is imminent. The couple has had unfettered access to spend time with their two children, placed with an aunt who stepped up as a foster parent. 

They visited almost every day until, on March 25, their caseworker with the Sault Tribe emailed to say: “I have some upsetting news.” To comply with the stay-at-home order issued by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D), the caseworker told them that “no in-person parenting time or sibling visits may occur.” 

Hillary Brabyn said she and her husband were “literally seconds from gaining unsupervised visit privileges” when the emergency orders to contain coronavirus froze everything. In-person visits were suspended until at least the end of April. 

“I am boggled and beyond frustrated,” Hillary Brabyn said. “My kids are hurt, they’re crying. They don’t understand. My daughter is thinking we don’t want to see her.”

Meanwhile, Brabyn said that remote visits have not been going well. 

“They are too young” for meaningful phone conversations, she said. Her 5-year-old “doesn’t understand she can’t have her face right up in the phone, and they can’t be talking at the same time. They can see mommy through the phone.”

Brabyn said she’s been talking to other families in similar situations – families The Chronicle of Social Change has also heard from in states as distant as Texas and New Jersey. 

“I feel so lost,” she said. “Right now, nobody cares because it’s not their kids.”

Feds Backing Families

How and whether to adjust these upended foster care timelines remains mostly an unanswered question. But one of President Donald Trump’s top child welfare officials has made his position clear: Don’t hold the pandemic against parents.  

In an extraordinarily blunt op-ed published by The Chronicle last week, Jerry Milner, associate commissioner of the U.S. Children’s Bureau and David Kelly, his special assistant, warned against attorneys amid the pandemic who would “weaponize our systemic shortcomings and use them against parents.”

As child welfare systems and the court struggle to adapt to life on hold, “we cannot forget the simple fact that children miss their parents, parents miss their children, and that absent aggravated circumstances, they deserve a fair shot to be together or get back together as soon as there is not a safety risk,” they wrote. Milner and Kelly called such a reunion not a mere “longing for contact,” but “a matter of healthy brain development, maintaining critical bonds, and prevention of trauma that can persist for generations.”

They closed their essay with a warning: “We cannot allow the coronavirus to serve as a modern-day orphan train that leads to the redistribution of other people’s children,” adding: “To lose sight of this is a moral and ethical failing. It is an injustice.”

In Texas, the state provided dependency court judges with some tools to address the issue, according to Judge Darlene Byrne, who works in Travis County. Judges can already issue a “return and monitor” order,  placing children back in homes with extra supervision, or granting a one-time 180-day extension. But in a sign of the turbulent times, the state Supreme Court recently allowed judges to place some cases “in suspension” during the time that court activity is limited. 

In California, courts have just begun to grapple with how to address the issue. For the first several weeks of the pandemic, most county courts only held hearings for children newly entering foster care. 

But after an emergency meeting of the state’s Judicial Council on April 7, juvenile dependency courts were told they had to hold other key hearings, including those involving family reunifications. The administrative arm of the courts also advised judges not to issue blanket suspensions of in-person visits for families – those calls would have to be made on a case-by-case basis. 

A coalition of child welfare advocates is calling on Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), the California Legislature and the Judicial Council to act more decisively, by granting parents timeline extensions that mirror the length of time the state remains sheltered in place.

Not all child welfare experts think that solves the complex and multifaceted problem the pandemic has created. Attorney David Meyers, whose legal firm represents parents and children in nine Northern California counties –  wants to see a “reboot” of some timelines, and not others. 

“Some families are doing fine and may not need the extra time given by the crisis. It may hurt them, and we might want to go business as usual with them,” Meyers said. “Other families are desperately going to need that extra time because they’re going to be detrimentally impacted by this. 

‘Every Day Is An Unimaginably Long Time’

According to accounts confirmed by her court-appointed attorney, Julia Hanagan, the Sonoma County mother’s child welfare case began in September, when police responded to a domestic disturbance at her home, and found her drunk with her children present. 

Social workers showed up the next night. Responding to prior concerns about the mother’s ability to stay sober and to protect her children from domestic violence, they placed her 17-month-old daughter and 8-year-old son with a neighbor for the night. The next day, her son was sent to live with his father, and her infant daughter was placed in foster care. 

The children’s mother said she regrets so much about that day, and she admits to having made “a very painful mistake” that she’s since learned from. She even said the child welfare system’s intervention, with a six-month deadline, helped her: “It came at the right moment in my life. It was like a blessing in disguise.” 

Sonoma County officials do not comment on specific dependency cases because of confidentiality laws. But in emailed responses to questions this week, Nick Honey, director of the Family, Youth and Children’s Services Division, said local courts handling roughly 500 cases “returned to full operation on April 6,” with most parents, youth and attorneys appearing virtually. Contracts with some service providers have been modified to offer assistance online, or through phone calls.

Still, families have still faced increasing difficulty in reunifying.

“There have been interruptions in family reunification cases, but we have been working hard to mitigate those interruptions for the benefit of reunifying families,” Honey said. He added that while “visits for all families are continuing with the same frequency,” given the limits of the shelter-in-place order, contact is virtual rather than face-to-face.

For the Sonoma County mother, the chaos has felt like a double dose of punishment.

When her daughter left the neighbor’s house, she initially went to a foster home with five other children, she said. That household went through its own panicked upheaval in November when wildfires tore through the region, an inferno that caused 180,000 residents to flee their homes. 

Visits with her daughter took two weeks to be arranged during that chapter.

By January, three months into her six-month case plan, the baby was moved to a relative’s home – her third move.

Meanwhile, the mom moved out of the home she shared with her abusive partner, she said. She completed a substance abuse treatment program, domestic violence and parenting classes, and attended therapy.

“She’s made tremendous strides above and beyond what the court has asked to create a safe home for her kids,” said Hanagan, her attorney. “She has really prioritized doing the hard work she needed to do in order to reunify.”

The county’s growing confidence in her progress was evident as well.

After the mother’s meeting with her social worker, the case moved forward, and some of her visits with her daughter grew from three to eight hours, without supervision. She said she was told the plan was to begin overnight visits shortly before an April court date, the day the county was supposed to make a decision about whether to return her child, an account confirmed by Hanagan.

Weeks later, she is relieved that her daughter is at least with trustworthy, extended family during the growing pandemic, and they are keeping her safe. She believes her family is taking every necessary precaution, staying home and not taking any health risks with her child.

But after her transition plan was put on hold last month, she is still waiting. At home, unopened Christmas presents wait for her daughter.

“Not being able to see your children is just the most excruciating pain that a mother can go through,” she said. “Every day is an unimaginably long time.” 

After having fulfilled the court’s orders, she is ready to make up for having missed out on milestones, like her daughter’s first steps and potty training. 

“Having this go on for seven months, you feel like your life is stuck,” she said. “It’s time for us to move forward.”

Jeremy Loudenback can be reached at jeremyloudenback@chronicleofsocialchange.org. John Kelly can be reached at jkelly@chronicleofsocialchange.org.

This story was produced as part of a project for the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2020 California Fellowship.

[This article was originally published by The Chronicle of Social Change.]