During Pandemic, New York and Los Angeles Take Different Paths on Family Visits

Two of the largest urban foster care systems in the country went in opposite directions on a key question facing every community right now: Whether or not to continue family visits between foster youth and their parents or guardians as the nation retreats indoors to fight the spread of coronavirus. 

On Friday, New York City’s child welfare agency instructed its network of dozens of foster care agencies that visits with families should be carried out, and preferably in person.

“Providers should attempt to continue visits according to current visiting plans and court orders, in person if consistent with the health and safety of the child, parent, case planner and foster parent,” said guidance issued by the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS). “When necessary for health and safety reasons, case planners should arrange for video visits or phone calls.”

Across the country and within a day of California’s statewide shelter-in-place order, the Los Angeles County dependency court suspended all court-ordered visits between parents and siblings. 

“The court finds in-person visitation poses an imminent health and safety risk,” said the order from Judge Victor Greenberg, presiding judge of the L.A. County’s juvenile court. 

Greenberg suggested, but did not mandate, that those visits be replaced with virtual contact by phone or video. 

The order raised immediate alarm among the attorneys representing the 34,000 children in L.A. County’s child welfare system. Leslie Starr Heimov, executive director of the Children’s Law Center of California, said she is concerned that foster youth will be denied social contact with their siblings and their parents.

“We recognize that not every face-to-face visit is going to go forward — that that would be unrealistic to expect during this time,” Heimov said. “But to completely suspend all court-ordered, in-person visitation is overreaching and not in line with the health directives provided by the health department, the governor, the county and the mayor.”

State and county child welfare agencies around the country have struggled all week to nail down temporary rules on when social workers should visit families in person. While abuse and neglect  investigations are still required to be conducted in person – emergency response social workers in Los Angeles have sometimes lacked gloves or masks while conducting these investigations this week – here is less certainty around other contacts such as caseworker visits to foster youth and community service provider visits to the homes of families. 

In contrast, in New York City, officials are not requiring caseworkers to make visits to most of the city’s foster youths – 7,709 as of December 2019 – with the exception of “children in particularly high-risk cases where in-person contacts are necessary to maintain safety.”

According to the agency’s guidance, that high-risk group includes youth who are at home or living alone on what’s called a “trial discharge;” those who have a specific number of contacts mandated by the court; and those who live in foster homes where “the COVID-19 public health crisis” may be causing health, safety or child care difficulties.

In an email, Chanel Caraway, press secretary for ACS in New York, provided the rationale for the guidance, stating: “While it is imperative that caseworkers continue to ensure the well-being of children in care and that parents and children continue to have family time, these obligations must be balanced against the health of children in care, parents, caseworkers, foster parents and all of the people with whom they come into contact.” 

Caraway said contacts should now be made, where appropriate, via video or teleconferencing, adding: “For many families, particularly those who may be especially isolated in this stressful time, and who may be experiencing serious mental health challenges or are survivors of intimate partner violence, the reassurance of hearing regularly from a supportive case planner cannot be overstated.”

New York attorneys said in interviews that before ACS released its guidance this week, foster care agencies adopted inconsistent policies for visits. Some suspended visits entirely, while other agencies in the same community moved to virtual visits. The disruptions threatened to prolong already fragile family reunifications and the court hearings that determine their course.

We have cases where parents were having overnight visits with their children in foster care until now,” said Lauren Shapiro, who oversees the legal aid firm Brooklyn Defenders Services, representing parents involved in child welfare cases. “And now these cases are delayed for months.” 

Shapiro added that for many families, virtual meetings are not realistic. “Far too many of our clients cannot afford reliable technology, including phones with video capabilities or WiFi. For those parents, ACS must ensure access,” she said. “Given this unprecedented public health crisis, the Administration for Children’s Services and its contract foster care agencies must ensure, now more than ever, that children in foster care are able to maintain connections with their biological  parents.”

Chris Gottlieb, co-director of the New York University Family Defense Clinic, was guardedly happy with the new guidance.

It’s all about implementation, of course, but this seems like a good start,” she said.

There is proven harm that can occur when children in foster care have less contact with their biological families. Research by the American Psychological Association, the National Institutes of Health and other academic groups has found that foster children who visit more often with their parents while in out-of-home care spend less time in the child welfare system than those who have less frequent contact. They are also less likely to be depressed and act out. 

In Los Angeles, Judge Greenberg took the view that health risks trumped the downsides from fewer visits. His temporary order notes the escalating series of social limitations on state residents, beginning with the State of Emergency declared by Gov. Gavin Newsom March 4 and culminating in “stay at home” orders imposed Thursday by the governor and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. In his statewide order, Newsom said that as many as 56 percent of Californians could end up contracting the coronavirus under worst-case scenarios. 

Greenberg did not require that the county Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) substitute visits with phone calls or videoconferencing, but did instruct the agency to conduct remote visits “wherever feasible.”

In yet another sign of the distinct approaches to public health and safety on the front lines of child welfare systems, Greenberg gave DCFS discretion to let some foster youths remain on “extended visits” with their parents or guardians. New York, in contrast, deemed that scenario a “high-risk” case requiring in-person caseworker visits.

But Heimov said for parents who aren’t that far along toward getting their children back, the pause on family time “has the potential to add to existing levels of anxiety for kids.”

“Visitations are the single most important part of keeping kids and parents connected and making reunification successful so there’s appropriate bonding,” she said.

John Kelly can be reached at jkelly@chronicleofsocialchange.org, Michael Fitzgerald at mfitzgerald@chronicleofsocialchange.org, Jeremy Loudenback at jeremyloudenback@chronicleofsocialchange.org.

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