Shut in At Home, Foster and Adoptive Parents Look Online for Support

artwork painting kids
Artwork by Martha Hornthal’s older daughter Maria (top) and younger daughter Veronica (bottom) hangs in her New York City home. Photo courtesy of Martha Hornthal

With coronavirus exploding in the world around them, millions of parents are discovering just how difficult long days and nights holed up indoors with kids can be. For New York foster and adoptive parents, like Martha Hornthal, their children’s first week of distance learning has sometimes felt not just isolating and wearying – but bordering on the impossible.

Hornthal and her wife Kathleen are the adoptive mothers of two sisters – Maria, 12, and Veronica, 8. Veronica, who’s been with them since birth, has an intellectual disability and under normal circumstances receives special education services at school. This Monday, Hornthal tried to jumpstart her highly energetic daughter on an online learning platform, but hit obstacles almost immediately.

“She can’t sit down and learn without someone with real chops who can serve the information to her in a way that makes it stick,” Hornthal said. “I’m trying very hard not to get stressed out, but I feel like we’re going to lose so much of any progress she’s made. I don’t know how to engage her in it in a way that feels meaningful to her.”

The disruption of daily routines caused by the coronavirus, which is ravaging New York City and has driven more than 19 million people indoors across the state, has thrown into stark relief how essential school-based services are for many families, especially those raising children with special needs. Stuck at home, foster and adoptive families have the growing burden of providing everything from meals to counseling – leaving many overwhelmed and worried they don’t have the skills needed to fill in as an all-in-one teacher, occupational therapist and playmate.

“The more time they’re away from those rock-star professionals, the greater concern parents have in terms of their own lack of skill and also sheer exhaustion and frustration,” said April Dinwoodie, an adoptee who now mentors New York youth in foster care. “A lot of the parents are taking it not even a day at a time, but maybe one hour segment at a time.”

Hornthal feels fortunate that Veronica’s public school is now offering virtual occupational therapy, speech therapy and counseling, but the sessions account for just a small portion of her day. With Veronica’s weekly gymnastics and track practices cancelled, it’s up to Hornthal and her wife, who works full time in technology and media, to keep up with their active daughter. They take long walks and bike rides near their home on the Lower East Side, or go to the nearby schoolyard to play chase, jump on a toy trampoline, and build obstacle courses. They’ve also started letting her watch shows – The Worst Witch or Boss Baby – in the early mornings so they can sleep in a bit later.

“If she’s not on a screen, she needs 100 percent supervision, or things get drawn on or cut,” said Hornthal. “We’re exhausted, we’re depleted.”

Agencies that work with foster and adoptive kids are rushing to figure out how they can help from afar. At University Settlement Society, which provides mental health and preventative services to at-risk families in Manhattan and Brooklyn, staff are suggesting online games and puzzles to families, and are considering sending out packages of coloring books and craft supplies. Mary Adams, who leads mental health services at University Settlement, says staff are particularly concerned for families of young children and those with special needs, who often lack the ability to structure and occupy their own time.

“When they head out to school for eight hours, they have a structured day and maybe a paraprofessional who works with them, but at home parents don’t have that structure in place – none of us do,” said Adams. “There’s conflict, they may not have resources at home, and these things keep escalating day after day. As a parent or caregiver, you start feeling like you’re not good at this, which can start building your own anxiety and depression, and like most people you get angry and frustrated – it’s quite the perfect storm.”

University Settlement has equipped all of its counseling staff with laptops and phones and is now offering all of its mental health and preventative services fully online. For parents and caregivers, they are emphasizing coping strategies like focused breathing and stepping away to take 15-minute breaks twice a day. With anxiety peaking, Adams hopes some of the parents in their family support programs will consider starting their own therapy sessions – “and now we can bring it right to your bedroom,” she noted.

Not everyone is as confident that service providers are ready to serve families virtually, or that such services can closely match in-person sessions. On Thursday, the National Center on Adoption and Permanency hosted a call for a dozen staff members to brainstorm how to respond to needs and explore best practices on virtual service delivery. For CEO Adam Pertman, it was a reminder of how much ground there still is to cover.

“Tele-help is never the same as in-person care, and most people are learning how to use it, not using it efficiently and optimally,” he said. “People know there’s technological assistance and other ways to do things, but we’ve never planned for those. We have to figure out how to get out of a crisis while we’re in the middle of it.”

Like University Settlement, Pertman’s agency is exploring online respite care, where agency staff or foster parents could interact with children online and play games.

Pertman and Dinwoodie agree that the level of virtual support parents get while stuck at home is often a function of how connected to peers and professionals they were before coronavirus struck, leaving the most vulnerable, hard-to-reach families in the lurch. Hornthal, who works part-time as a case planner at a nonprofit that finds homes for older foster youth, is also worried about families with more recent foster and adoptive placements, who haven’t had as much time to find their own supportive community to fall back on. 

She considers herself lucky; both she and her daughters have communities they can turn to over technology. For Veronica, that means virtual playdates with friends and FaceTime calls with her birth mother. For Hornthal, it means communicating with her co-workers at You Gotta Believe, and the foster parents they serve. This week, the organization began hosting biweekly video calls for foster and adoptive parents to get together over a virtual coffee break.

“Right now the imposed isolation and the isolation of being a foster parent is a particularly big challenge,” said Hornthal, so the support is welcome respite. “It’s really amazing to be sitting in a call and have that light of understanding, especially with a special needs child, and hear ‘Oh yeah, me too!’”

She hopes that creating outlets for parents to stay connected virtually will help them cope with the pressures of flying solo over the coming weeks.

“While there are a lot of people on Pinterest and Facebook putting up pictures of their kids being really driven,” Hornthal said, “I have a feeling there are a lot more of us not posting and just trying to crawl to the end of the day.”

Megan Conn is a reporter in New York for The Chronicle of Social Change, and can be reached at mconn@chronicleofsocialchange.org.

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Megan Conn, New York Reporter, The Chronicle of Social Change
About Megan Conn, New York Reporter, The Chronicle of Social Change 25 Articles
Megan Conn is a reporter for The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach her at mconn@chronicleofsocialchange.org.