A New York City mother watched as her toddler waddled away, but she couldn’t reach out to play with her, or scoop her up in her arms.
Her daughter was living in a foster home, and with the coronavirus racing through what has become the U.S. epicenter of the pandemic, their treasured two-hour visits had given way to shorter video calls. They usually ended with the foster mother chasing the 2-year-old around the house, doing her best to keep the girl on mom’s screen.
These often-frustrating virtual visits are now common for parents working to regain custody of their children from the city’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), responsible for nearly 8,000 children in foster care at the end of 2019.
Remote contact like video calls and FaceTime change “the dynamics of connecting and attaching with our children while they’re in foster care, especially the younger children who don’t understand,” said parent advocate Jeanette Vega, who counseled the toddler’s mother as part of a recently launched online support group.
Officially, New York City’s child welfare agency has called for in-person visits to continue, writing as recently as last Thursday in its latest emergency guidance memo, “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.”
New York law establishes the right of parents accused of abuse or neglect to have regular visits with their children, as long as the court finds that such contact would not endanger the child.
“Frequent and consistent” contact between parents and children preserves emotional attachment, reduces the trauma of separation and can expedite reunification, according to the state Office of Children and Family Services. But facilitating those visits – in a city where COVID-19 has infected at least 130,000 city residents and killed more than 13,000 in just a month – has been an unprecedented challenge.
The visits that have proven most difficult to continue in person are those that typically take place in an agency office under staff supervision, according to the directors of Forestdale and MercyFirst, two foster agencies that supervise hundreds of children in Queens and Brooklyn.
When COVID-19 first struck the city a few weeks ago, ACS called on agencies to adjust how they supervised visits at their offices to allow for greater social distancing between families. MercyFirst implemented many of the suggested steps, including staggering families’ visiting times, using overflow office space and cleaning frequently, said CEO Jerry McCaffrey.
But within days, he added, the risks of having multiple families travel to the same office and ride the same elevator made such visits largely untenable. Many supervised visits went virtual in late March, McCaffrey said, and in the last two weeks 93 of the 241 children in the agency’s care had virtual visits with a parent.
Another 25 children had unsupervised visits in a home setting or public space. When children are placed with a kinship caregiver, as are more than half of the children in MercyFirst’s care, family ties often make it easier for parents to maintain face-to-face visits, said McCaffrey.
Before any in-person contact, agency staff must ask parents and foster parents a series of screening questions, according to the latest guidance from ACS. Visits are not advised if anyone in either the parent or foster family’s household has any respiratory symptoms or is considered high-risk for coronavirus.
And parents living apart from their children still have to figure out how to safely navigate the city. There are currently 93 percent fewer people riding the subway than normal, and the trains that remain running have become an informal moving shelter for those with no other home. Less than half of New York households own a car, and taxis and ride-share apps are not only costly but also put riders in a confined space where untold others have been cycling through.
Many foster homes include children from multiple families, making the calculus of isolation even more complicated. Through Forestdale in Queens, Roxanne Williams is a foster mother of four teens, including two brothers who typically spend weekends visiting a close family friend. But in mid-March, to their disappointment, she told them that they couldn’t keep going back and forth between the homes.
“At first they thought we were making a big deal of [the coronavirus], but then the statistics came out that Queens County has the highest rate of cases and that caused them to pull back,” said Williams. “They understand what is going on and now they’re so fearful they don’t even want to go out to the front yard to stretch.”
Younger children can’t understand the pandemic in the same way, said Vega, the parent advocate, and they also lack the ability to engage virtually, as the running toddler proved. She advised that child’s mother to work with her attorney to set up shorter, more frequent video calls to make up for the missed time when the child’s attention strayed from the phone.
Children’s Bureau Associate Commissioner Jerry Milner and adviser David Kelly underscored the urgency of prioritizing face-to-face visiting whenever possible in a recent opinion piece for The Chronicle of Social Change: “It is not merely a matter of longing for contact, it is a matter of healthy brain development, maintaining critical bonds, and prevention of trauma that can persist for generations.”
Megan Conn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.