Children who enter the foster care system have been exposed to unthinkable traumas – including physical and sexual abuse; physical, emotional and medical neglect; exposure to domestic violence; and parents who are suffering from addiction.  Grief and loss issues resulting from placement can tip the scales for children who find themselves suddenly separated from all that they’ve known.  The resulting physical and mental health needs and behavioral and educational challenges call for foster homes that provide stable care and nurturing, within a consistent daily living structure that offers physical and emotional safety.  In the day-to-day effort to accomplish this, a successful foster parent must maintain their own good mental health in order to draw upon the qualities that are needed – such as a positive attitude, empathy and patience, flexibility, creativity, problem-solving ability, and sound time management.  

For foster parents across the country on any given day, the COVID-19 pandemic has added additional layers of complexity to an already challenging system of care, stretching many to their limits… 

Most of the more than 400,000 children who are in foster care in the United States entered the system with an initial goal of returning to their family of origin.  Reunification requires a carefully orchestrated collaboration of activities between foster parents and agency caseworkers with the birth family at the direction of a court, and include among other things frequent community-based in-person family visits and a potential plethora of mental health, education and healthcare services.  In March of 2020, foster homes across the country became the hub of a new “virtual” system of care, with foster parents assuming a variety of demanding new roles.   

While technology has been the saving grace for many during this pandemic, it’s placed additional demands on the finite time that foster parents have to manage their responsibilities. It’s these superheroes who have been asked to coordinate, host, and supervise virtual visits, while also working remotely at home, and simultaneously overseeing their children’s work in the virtual classroom, virtual counseling sessions, and caseworker appointments between meals and housework.  Maintaining realistic expectations and establishing boundaries is important, especially when interacting with multiple agencies and individuals. 

“Not The Same … But Still Supported”

Darren, a pastor in a small rural community, and his wife Christine, a former pre-school teacher, were approved as foster parents in 2018 and have fostered 11 children to date – including at the time of this writing two seven-year-olds and a 20-month old.  Darren indicated that his family was “in a pretty good foster care groove” in the early spring of 2020; they’d settled into a routine with their foster child who seemed to be adjusting, and had formed great relationships with the foster care agency staff.  

“And then COVID-19 hit.”  

According to Darren, at that point life became even less predictable.  Caseworker visits and visitation between the foster child and his parent were suddenly occurring over a new video conferencing system called Zoom.  Darren found himself having to set up Zoom meetings for visitation between his foster child and the birth family several times each week (formerly the responsibility of agency staff).  In a sudden role shift, he had become the facilitator, supervisor and moderator between
this birth parent and her child for these remote calls. 

Darren admitted that visits with Zoom are very time-consuming and can be overwhelming, but he’s learned not to sweat the small stuff. While some agencies have kept the standard two-hour time frame for parent and child Zoom visits, others have moved to visits that are shorter in duration, but held more frequently during the week;  this arrangement seems to be more manageable for all involved.  Conversations during these remote visits can be awkward, yet Darren observed that one of the weekly highlights of visiting virtually is that Zoom allows his foster child to see his home and his bedroom, with reassurances that all of his belongings are still there.  Home visits aren’t possible for many children in foster care, which contributes to issues of loss and grief.  In this situation, Darren’s foster son’s sense of loss has been diminished with the increased visual connection he has with his home.  

In addition, virtual visitation has allowed other family members the chance to connect which otherwise would be impossible due to geographic distance or schedules.  An uncle for one of the children has recently begun visiting with very meaningful interactions in a blossoming family connection, and a grandmother who otherwise would have been too far for an in-person visit has been getting to know her grandchild via these remote sessions.  In Darren’s view, these positive outcomes and the hope they’re offering as a result of technology has made it worth the effort to face the new challenges.

Like many parents across the country, virtual schooling has added a new dimension to parenting. Foster parents caring for children with mental health-related learning needs such as ADHD or ASD have to devote additional time and effort to offer emotional support and to stage behavioral interventions to assure the children stay on task.  Without prior educational experience in these areas, virtual classrooms have become a source of conflict and frustration for many foster parents and children alike.  Getting through the school day can be a challenge, and successful foster parents have learned that sometimes you just have to pick your battles. At the end of the longest days, foster parents often have nothing left to give—yet will tell you that it’s all worth it when they can celebrate the little “wins.” 

Successful foster parents will often credit their success to the support that they are provided by the agencies who place the foster children in the home.  When multiple agencies are involved, communication, coordination and teamwork is critical.  Prior to COVID-19, caseworkers from the three involved agencies visited Darren and Christine’s home frequently, and the team was far more actively engaged according to Darren.  Zoom has supplemented the in-person interaction when face to face time hasn’t been safe.  

“It’s just not the same as it used to be,” said Darren. “There’s nothing like being face to face.”  

“We still feel supported, though,” he said. “Two weeks ago we had a crisis and we tried unsuccessfully to contact our caseworker who was dealing with another emergency. The Program Manager stepped in, emphasizing to us the importance of teamwork, and people pulling together.   

“Now that things are opening up again, we’re seeing the agency staff in person and that makes a huge difference in our family.”   

Stresses brought on with the challenges related to this pandemic are real. However, there are a number of things that foster parents like Darren and Christine can do to manage their own wellbeing in these trying times.  

Stay connected with family, friends, agency supports and other foster parents who can offer help and support, and suggestions for overcoming challenges and barriers. Talk openly about frustrations, fears, and concerns.  Remember – you’re NOT alone in this strange new world of ours!

Look for signs of stress – including increased irritability, difficulty sleeping, feelings of being overwhelmed, changes in appetite, anxiousness and heightened emotions.  Ask for help!

Establish and follow routines. Daily routines help everyone feel safer and more secure. Create a daily schedule that includes waking and dressing for the day; setting regular mealtimes when the family can eat together; conducting work and learning time in an area designated just for those activities; remembering the importance of fresh air and play time; limiting screen time for everyone; and scheduling naps and routine bedtimes.

Be prepared.  Have a contingency plan in the event of illness, quarantine, or isolation. Be sure to also communicate with your foster care agency to make sure the designated back-ups are able to serve in that emergency role.  

Limit chance for exposure.   Make sure you have an adequate supply of masks and hand sanitizer.  The best location for a visit is outside whenever possible. When a visit takes place inside, follow current CDC guidelines and local protocols for wearing masks, physical distancing, and practicing good hand hygiene. When in-person visits cannot be done safely, ensure that children can have virtual visits that are developmentally appropriate for them. 

• If virtual visits are stressful, ask your foster care agency for help. 

When asked to consider new placements, make safe decisions.    Ask about known exposure, positive test results or symptoms of COVID-19. Everyone (child, former caregiver and household members, and child welfare professionals) should be screened for COVID-19 exposure or symptoms before entering the home. 

Above all, remember that self-care is essential for successful foster parenting.  Get plenty of rest, make healthy food choices, ask for help if you need it, and don’t sweat the small stuff.| 

Elizabeth Lunney

Elizabeth Lunney

Elizabeth Lunney, MSW, LSW has worked at KidsPeace since 1985 in a number of positions of increasing responsibility for efforts to grow the organization’s foster care and community programs in Pennsylvania and beyond. Currently she serves as PA FCCP State Manager, overseeing nine offices that provide foster care, adoption and a number of community-based mental health services throughout eastern and central Pennsylvania.  Elizabeth holds a master’s degree in social work from Marywood University, and lives in northeast Pennsylvania.