As Foster Care Awareness Month begins, the impact coronavirus is having on some of the most vulnerable children and those trying to help them cannot be ignored.
Children are more at risk of abuse and hospitals across the country have observed an increase in suspected cases of child abuse in March and April. One Florida hospital typically sees one or two cases a month but has seen eight in just the past few weeks.
A Texas hospital that typically sees eight cases a month saw five in just one week in March. Each child was under six years old, and one tragically passed away. He was the third child in less than a month to die from abuse injuries –the hospital usually sees an average of six abuse-related deaths per year.
At-risk children are quarantined in their dysfunctional homes, with adults who are struggling with heightened stress and anxiety.
Additionally, the psychological stress of the pandemic creates a real risk of previously stabilized homes becoming unstable again.
This sadly is increasing the need for foster homes, but beyond instances of abuse, homes are needed when children or their parents contract the coronavirus.
In Indiana, thousands of foster parents have been contacted about taking children who have coronavirus or have been in contact with someone who has coronavirus. New Jersey has had to find foster placements for children whose parents were hospitalized.
Finding these homes can be difficult as foster parents are dealing with the same financial struggles and health concerns as the rest of the world. Some foster parents have been struggling for years and this pandemic only compounds their struggles.
Sharonell Fulton has fostered over 40 children in Philadelphia; but in 2018 she was cut off from training, resources, and support provided by Catholic Charities of Philadelphia. The city terminated its contracts with faith-based adoption and foster care agencies because of their religious beliefs.
Fulton and other foster parents sued, noting that the city’s unconstitutional discrimination resulted in empty foster homes when more were desperately needed.
This strain is causing concern that some foster parents will drop out of the system. Some states, such as North Carolina, acknowledge that there is already a shortage and that it could get worse. Pennsylvania is facing many of these same problems.
According to the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, Bryan Bornman, executive director of the Pennsylvania Children and Youth Administrators, “fears that long-term interruptions to children and youth services could decimate the industry’s workforce, which is already plagued with high turnover.”
Things are likely to get worse as stay-at-home orders begin to lift. The gravity of the increase in abuse, and thus need for resources, has likely not been seen fully yet. Abuse is less visible during a quarantine. Children are currently not seeing their teachers, doctors, or other mandatory reporters of abuse. Thus, in some parts of the country, calls to state child abuse hotlines have decreased significantly.
This decrease is believed to be due to reduced ability to catch and report abuse, not an actual decline in instances of abuse. A “flood” of calls to child abuse hotlines is expected when the quarantines end.
An all hands-on deck approach to the child welfare crisis is crucial, now more than ever.
One step toward ensuring that we truly are “all in this together” would be for the Supreme Court, which recently agreed to take Sharonell and her fellow foster parents’ case, to rule in their favor.
Such a ruling would follow U.S. law and its own precedent allowing faith-based entities to work alongside the government to help alleviate the foster care system crisis free of government discrimination.
Allowing faith-based groups back into the foster care system in places like Philadelphia will bring all our communities’ resources to bear to respond to the tragic increase in child abuse triggered by the coronavirus pandemic.
Mary Beth Waddell is Senior Legislative Assistant at Family Research Council.