California Child Welfare System Braces for Coronavirus Impact 

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti shared updates about the county’s coronavirus response at a March 12 news conference. Photo courtesy of the mayor’s office.

As state and local leaders throughout Los Angeles County and statewide work to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus, concerns remain about how such measures could impact youth and families involved with the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. 

As of Thursday, there have been 32 confirmed cases of COVID-19 so far — one of which was fatal — in Los Angeles County and 198 cases statewide with four fatalities, according to local and state Departments of Public Health. The California Department of Public Health has recommended that all “non-essential” gatherings of more than 250 people, or those that don’t allow for “social distancing” of six feet between each person, to be postponed at least through March. In L.A. County, gatherings of 50 people or more are being discouraged, according to L.A. County Department of Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer.

Following is a rundown of several youth and family services that could be affected by societal changes related to the coronavirus. 

Courts

One area of concern in regards to these recommendations is the juvenile dependency court, where in a large county like Los Angeles, daily attendance soars far above 250, not to mention court staff in 29 different courtrooms. At L.A.’s Edmund D. Edelman Dependency Court, though, it’s still business as usual for now. 

“We haven’t seen any impacts yet,” said the court’s public information officer Mary Hearn. She said that they are making plans for “various eventualities,” but was unable to provide details on any plans in the works. 

A press release sent out Friday indicated that the court is developing protocols to adapt to the rapidly changing situation around the pandemic.

“The Court is working with justice partners to identify ways to reduce the need for in-person appearances while performing legally mandated functions and respecting litigants’ due process rights, including expanding video and telephonic appearances,” the press release says.

The court has a legal obligation to hold certain hearings and proceedings on particular timeframes and postponing the court’s activities would require an emergency order from the supervising judge, Hearn said. For now, there’s been a lot of hand sanitizer made available and informational posters from the Department of Public Health hung around the courthouse. 

Schools 

On Friday, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) announced it would close all district schools effective Monday, March 16. The second-largest school district in the nation, LAUSD serves about 700,000 students.

This is of particular concern to low-income families with working parents who cannot take the day off to care for their kids if schools close down, and don’t have the resources for back-up childcare options. Eighty percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunches provided by the school. 

The district will open 40 resource centers starting Wednesday, March 18, where childcare and meals will be provided to families who need these supports. 

To make continuation of learning accessible to all students, the district has created a plan with PBS SoCal for classes to be taught via television rather than online, acknowledging that at least a quarter of LAUSD students don’t have access to computers or the internet at home. 

Many California colleges have announced plans to move all classes online for the remainder of the semester. These could hit foster youth especially hard as those who live off-campus may not have access to reliable internet and computers.

The Truckee, Calif.-based nonprofit iFoster is working to support foster youth through these closures. In an email to The Chronicle of Social Change, iFoster, which operates a program that offers a free phone for all foster youth in the state, said that their phones can be used both as an internet hotspot and as a device to stream online classes. 

iFoster co-founder Serita Cox said they’re also working on plans to support high school students in the case that their classes move to an online format. 

Congregate Care

The California Department of Social Services has issued a coronavirus-related guideline for all registered children’s residential facilities in the state, including group homes and short-term residential therapeutic programs (STRTPs). In the event of an outbreak of COVID-19 in a state-licensed facility, providers are urged to contact their local health department immediately, as well as report the incident to a state Children’s Residential Regional Office within one business day.

Juvenile Justice System

Youth in juvenile detention centers, like all those in institutional settings, are at a heightened risk for quick transmission if exposure occurs in the camps, ranches and halls. 

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), which manages the state’s Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), and the Los Angeles County Probation Department, which oversees the county’s juvenile detention centers, have both reported that they are working with public health officials and infectious disease experts to develop contingency plans in case exposure does occur. 

CDCR said in a statement that currently there have been no cases of COVID-19 infection at any of their adult or youth detention facilities. 

CDCR has cancelled normal family visitation for young people detained at DJJ facilities through at least this weekend, according to a statement emailed to The Chronicle.

The Los Angeles County Probation Department has cancelled visitation at its detention centers and residential treatment facilities, with the exception of court-ordered visitations, as well. Programming provided by outside community-based organizations has also been cancelled.

As of now, in-office meetings with probation officers are still being conducted as normal, according to Probation Department Communications Director Adam Wolfson. 

John Kelly contributed to this reporting. 

This story has been updated with additional information from the Superior Court. 

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