New York City’s foster care system has navigated crises before, especially after 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy. But the emergency plans nonprofits created after those disasters didn’t account for pandemics, and the city’s Administration for Children’s Services is now requesting updates from dozens of organizations serving nearly 8,000 youth in foster care.
“We ask that you submit your Continuity of Operations (COOP) plan/emergency plan before end of day Friday (March 13th),” read the Tuesday letter from Children’s Services Commissioner David Hansell, sent to each nonprofit foster care agency. “We are requesting access to your emergency plan so that we can ensure that all of the children and families we serve continue to receive the necessary services.”
Among the key issues the agencies are grappling with, beyond infection prevention and control, according to multiple nonprofit executives who spoke to The Chronicle of Social Change: If schools close, how to provide enough child care to foster parents? How to ensure college-age foster youth have stable housing as schools close their dorms?
And, as suspected COVID-19 cases spread, will parents accused of neglect or abuse be allowed to continue both visits with their children in foster care, and court-monitored rehabilitation programs? Both are crucial for parents seeking to convince family court judges to return their children home.
Good Shepherd Services’ recently appointed Executive Director Michelle Yanche raised another concern during a Friday interview: staffing foster homes during quarantines.
“We have facilities which cannot close,” she said, referring to Good Shepherd’s 24-hour group residences for foster youth. “The greatest risk is an inability to properly staff those because of program quarantines, or a mass of staff being quarantined at home and unable to come in.”
Friday afternoon, Good Shepherd released a statement calling for new supports from government and philanthropy, including temporarily loosening staff clearance requirements, and extra funding for emergency supplies.
City and state child welfare regulations require any foster care and juvenile delinquency facility to have a disaster plan. But, according to system leaders, few if any of those plans accounted for pandemics.
“Before Sandy, many agencies had plans, after Sandy everyone made plans. But it’s spotty [with regards to] how often people updated them – after 9/11 lots of agencies put plans in place and then sorta let them get dusty,” said Mary Jane Dessables, director of information, research and accountability at the statewide trade group, the Council of Family and Children Caring Agencies (COFCCA). “And everyone always writes a plan based on the last emergency, not on the next one.”
MercyFirst, a foster agency that was caring for more than 400 youth as of late last year, has rushed to adapt, along with other agencies.
“Having emergency plans in place is a long-standing requirement but as we read them, none contained this type of emergency. We covered hurricanes, earthquakes, power outages, fires but no pestilence!” explained CEO Jerry McCaffery via email. “We have since developed [steps] and will incorporate them and perhaps more as we get through all this.”
Another large foster care agency, Rising Ground, told The Chronicle the organization is currently working to finalize plans for family visits, activities for foster youth, and any childcare needs for foster parents. In Westchester County, where the largest cluster of confirmed cases has emerged, Family Services of Westchester (FSW) said activities have continued on a regular schedule so far, though the agency is planning for changes soon.
“Recreational and social activities for our youth will be, for the most part, confined to FSW sites rather than conducted in more public spaces,” said CEO Polly Kerrigan. “Soon, FSW will be offering therapeutic services via tele-medicine to reduce onsite visits.”
So far, the city’s family court buildings that hear child abuse and neglect cases have avoided full closure, despite one confirmed COVID-19 case in Manhattan.
Dessabbles with COFCCA, seven large foster care nonprofit executives, and state child welfare officials who were not authorized to speak on the record, all told The Chronicle they were not aware of any suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19 among youth or professionals involved in either the juvenile justice or foster care systems. But Yanche, for one, expects that to change.
“I’m sure by this time next week, that won’t be the case. We have a small window to put our plans in place, and it’s closing quickly.”