By Rose Hoban

The coronavirus pandemic has thrown the lives of families into turmoil. School’s been canceled and parents are now teachers, even as they may have lost jobs or are trying to work from home. There’s no child care, no playdates, even playgrounds are closed and grandparents inaccessible.

Now imagine all that, and that your child is also part of the foster care system, with the added emotional work, therapy visits and frequent communication with county social workers who monitor the well-being of your charge.

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On top of that, in North Carolina, 100 different counties have 100 different systems. While there is overarching guidance from the state Division of Social Services, much depends on individual counties’ departments of social services, their leadership, individual social workers and the family court judges in each jurisdiction. It’s a recipe for inconsistency, a reality that has driven recent reform efforts.

“That’s part of the problem with having a county-run system as opposed to some type of a statewide system,” said Deanna Cornett, who is responsible for the foster care program for EasterSeals/UCP of North Carolina and Virginia, “then we have 100 different sets of rules.”

One rule did apply to everyone, though. When Gov. Roy Cooper issued a stay-at-home order on March 27, that basically stopped most foster care visitation. The vast majority of families, biological and foster, were OK with pivoting to televisits during the lockdown, said Lisa Cauley, deputy director for child welfare services with the state Division of Social Services, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services.

But now the state is reopening and that inconsistency in the rules and how they’re being applied is reemerging. Visits are starting back up, but what those visits look like depends largely on the county you’re in.

Rights in conflict

David, a reader, wrote to NC Health News with his concerns about restarting visits for one of his foster children.

“We understand the importance of visits with biological parents for reunification but virtual visits have been going well and are safe for all parties,” wrote David who asked his last name or county not be used to preserve confidentiality. “We also have the duty to protect our other foster child who has a chronic lung issue.”

Many biological families, however, are eager to see their relatives who are in foster care.

“For a parent that has children in foster care they have rights, they have rights to visitation unless those rights have been terminated or relinquished or the court has said they can’t have this,” Cauley explained. “For most people who have children in foster care, there are specific court orders that say that they will visit their children or youth in foster care, and also how they will visit.

In a subsequent interview, David said he understands this, but he feels caught.

“We want to encourage these visits, we want them to go back and spend time with their families because that’s the plan, to get them to go back home,” he said. “Our concern … we were just kind of hoping that when stage two started, that maybe there would just be a little bit of a lag, just to see how things went before it was just back to, you know, basically having visits.

“It’s just causing increasing contacts that we may not be ready for.”

Since the beginning of the lockdown, David had televisits for his foster child, a toddler who doesn’t talk much yet, with his biological family. They held visits two or three times a week, in contrast to the once a week visits before the lockdown.

The visits ran long, he said, longer than they would have if the visits were in person. He would use toys to play with the boy, being directed by his parents. Together they worked on teaching the child his ABCs, “high fives, like you could still interact with him, singing with him.”

“What you can’t do, obviously, on a video chat, you can’t hug, you can’t show physical affection because you’re not in the same room,” he said. “But you could still kind of kiss a boo boo through a computer.”

Restarting visits

The beginning of the pandemic and all the changes it wrought in state policy when school was canceled was very confusing, said Erin Edwards, a foster parent in Durham County who has also become an advocate for foster families. For example, when schools first closed, she got mixed messages about how to go forward.

“I think I had initially gotten a communication maybe from my guardian ad litem, I think … that visits were off,” Edwards said. “Then I heard from another social worker that visits were on. And then I heard from a third person that visits were off and it was back and forth over a series of days.”

As at the beginning, now that the state is reopening Edwards says the messages she’s received have been confusing. She was hoping the state DSS would push counties harder one way or the other.

“It was my understanding that the state DHHS made the ruling about whether or not visits should be suspended or kept and the decision that they made was essentially to leave it up to the director of each county,” she said. The lack of clarity left her with a bevy of questions.

Cauley said that often these determinations about visits still need to be done on a case by case basis, determined at the county level, not mandated by the state.

“What we’ve done is really look at our stakeholder engagement and had some significant meetings with our county departments of social services, assistant directors, that are child welfare experts, [and] looked at what we can do, and they have vetted the guidance,” she said.

“Our strategy is to gain some consensus around what could happen, and just make sure that it’s clear that the value of those visits is understood, and the reason you’re moving back is so that kids can have connection,” Cauley said.

Edwards, and others, would like to see the state use a heavier hand.

“They transport my kid in the car, you know, is the car sanitized? The kid’s going into a room that presumably holds a whole bunch of kids over the course of the day and a bunch of families and what kind of sanitation practices are in place?” she asked. “There was no communication about that.”

In Edwards’ case, her guardian ad litem got involved and got some answers from the Durham DSS office.

“Eventually, I heard maybe two hours before the visit was scheduled that they were going to cancel in-person visits moving forward. My understanding is that they never communicated that to the biological parents. The biological parent emailed me later on that day wondering what the deal was.”

Cornett expressed exasperation over stories like Edwards’, with poor communication and county social workers operating with a heavy hand when foster parents push back.

“That’s probably been the bulk of my issues with each of my teams,” Cornett continued. “‘This DSS social worker said, ‘we’re going to do this and that.’ You know, it’s like all these social workers just sort of run rogue.”

“It’s scary,” said Myra Griffie, the chief operating officer for Lutheran Family Services in the Carolinas, which has foster children across the state. “We’re trying to be smart and make sure that people are protected and children are protected. But it’s out of our hands.”

For many foster parents, it truly is out of their hands. As children get closer to reunification, and parents are getting their lives together, visits go from being supervised in a controlled setting to being unsupervised, often including children who are living in multiple foster homes.

For David, his foster son’s parents are moving close to reunification. He said that had it not been for COVID-19, that probably would have been accomplished already.

That’s the biggest part of his worry, that his own household eventually could end up exposed to people from multiple households where he’s had no control over mitigating the hazards.

“We know now that some DSSs are opening up these visitations, and it’s scary,” said Karen McLeod, who leads Benchmarks, a group that represents child and family services providers. “We’re trying to be smart and make sure that, you know, where people are protected and children are protected. But again, it’s out of our hands.”

“And do you want to know what? It’s hard because I don’t know what the right thing is,” Edwards said. “I think that the right thing is for my youngest kiddo to see his parents. I’m not gonna lie to you. I think that that’s the right thing for him. But I’m not sure how we can do that safely.”

There’s been an upside. Really. 

The one thing that everyone interviewed for this story agrees on, that televisitation has been a net positive for foster and biological parents and the system overall.

“It has been fabulous,” Edwards said. “I feel like we’ve developed a wonderful relationship with his parents, but I’m not sure we would have developed otherwise.

“We spend at least an hour a week together because my youngest kid was only 10 months, like I’m there all the time that he’s on video.”

David agrees that televisitation has been positive.

“He doesn’t always have the concept of time, obviously. But he does look forward to the visit,” he said about his foster child.

During this time David said the child’s parents were working toward reunification and now that David has built a relationship with them, it makes him feel better about the child going home.

“We have good hopes for success,” he said.

“Our incident reports are going down, kids are comfortable,” Griffie said. “It was amazing to hear because I had expected the opposite. You know, kids getting bored being at home so much, but we’re actually seeing a decrease in our incidents with foster care.”

Some kids in foster care have their emotions triggered when they visit a parent with whom they’ve experienced trauma, Griffie said. Foster parents sometimes recount that they have to “reset” their foster children after a visit.

“If you don’t have to be in the same room or leave your safe place, then it’s a very different experience,” she said. “That’s what we hypothesized, when we talked about it … maybe the kids are comfortable and they feel safe and so they’re not being triggered.”

Griffie said she and her team are discussing how they could integrate online visits into future foster care plans.

“It’s really liberating as far as scheduling and giving flexibility for all parties,” she said. “We don’t have to do it the same time every day on a Saturday at three o’clock.”

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Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...