As Americans holed up last Saturday with family, doing puzzles or chatting online, teens in one New York City-area group home filed out of their bedrooms two at a time. Staff caring for the young people had been alerted Friday night that one of their colleagues tested positive for coronavirus, and a professional cleaning service had arrived to fumigate.
Four youth in the facility, which can house up to 70 people, have been placed under quarantine after the possible exposure.
The COVID-19 case at the Children’s Village site, one of the region’s largest juvenile justice and child welfare agencies, is among New York’s earliest publicly confirmed infections in a youth group home, as cases mounted to 25,000 statewide this week. The rest of Children’s Village’s 400-some young residents at multiple locations around the region remain mostly isolated in place with staff and peers, abiding by the escalating statewide “distancing” mandates from Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
“We make sure that we included some outside recreation time, so they have some opportunity for normalcy,” said Dr. Traci Gardner, medical director for Children’s Village.
While public health workers across the nation are scrambling, those who are caring for children who can’t live at home, already emotionally distraught, face an especially complex challenge. If a group home resident gets sick, quarantine space might run out. Many nonprofits also fear looming staff shortages for sick leave.
Gardner said Children’s Village is working to notify families about their children’s possible exposure at the one facility. The teen residents are also being informed about the infected staff member in an “age-appropriate” way. They have been provided expanded access to tech devices, allowing them to play games, read and connect more with mentors and family.
Meanwhile, Children’s Village staff are working to keep youth monitored for symptoms and in relative isolation, said David Collins, the agency’s chief program officer.
“We’ve had to isolate some folks and change the protocols day-to-day, which is disruptive, but unfortunately necessary,” Collins said. “Every young person in out-of-home care with us right now is practicing some level of social distancing. All of their lives have been disrupted.”
The agency says it has multiple epidemiologists with the state’s Department of Health assisting with the particular challenges of residential facilities. They even managed to help the Children’s Village’s staffer get coronavirus test results in about two days, despite nationwide delays.
“They understand it’s not as simple as ‘OK, everyone has to stay home now,’ because somebody has to take care of these young people,” Gardner said.
In an acknowledgement of the high-risk environment staff are now working in, some foster care agencies have boosted pay for frontline staff.
While some group residences struggle to protect their residents from coronavirus on site, others are seeking to disperse youth more aggressively – sending some children home to shelter in place with their families. This approach would also alleviate strain on group homes that could become short staffed, some providers and advocates have concluded.
Jess Danhauser, executive director of Graham Windham, wrote in an email that his foster care agency has identified about 40 children who could be sent home safely. In those cases, they are seeking a judge’s approval to reunify the families, due to the fast-moving public health crisis.
Parent advocates are also urging this approach for low-risk reunifications.
“I know parents must be freaking out,” said Jeanette Vega, training director for Rise magazine, which is written by parents who have experienced child welfare investigations, including many with children in foster care. “Child welfare should be reviewing each case and sending kids home if safety is not a concern. In these scary times of uncertainty … it’s the time to reunify as many as the system can.”
Michael Fitzgerald is the New York editor for The Chronicle of Social Change, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.