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How Do You Find a Home for a Foster Child at a Time Like This?

A system designed to respond to emergencies can never completely pause, even during a global pandemic.

When Jessica started to experience intense chest pain in March, she was terrified that she might have the coronavirus. Then her foster son started to experience symptoms too.

The high school in western New York State where she taught had just closed. She couldn’t get a test to confirm that her respiratory illness was indeed COVID-19, and she was confused about whether she should go to the emergency room or just stay home. She is single, and was her foster son’s only guardian. (He has since turned 18.) Caring for him while they were both so sick overwhelmed her. He was afraid

of losing her, and it reignited his grief over his adoptive grandmother’s recent death. She didn’t know how to comfort him when the outcome of her illness still felt so uncertain. On some days, she couldn’t even get out of bed. “It was too much responsibility,” Jessica told me. “I felt very helpless.” (Jessica and the other foster parents in this article requested to be referred to only by first name to protect their status as foster parents and their foster children’s privacy.)

As Jessica and her foster son’s conditions worsened, she worried: What if she grew too sick to care for him? The prospect of needing someone else to take him, at least for a short time, didn’t seem unlikely. Social workers seek out emergency placements for foster kids, but, as Jessica put it, “who is going to take a child that has been exposed to the coronavirus?”

The coronavirus pandemic has aggravated the difficult work of finding and maintaining stable homes for the United States’ more than 400,000 foster children. The mechanisms of foster care vary by state—sometimes by county—but many of the same threats loom over each location. Although specific nationwide statistics from recent months are hard to come by, interviews with experts, social workers, and foster parents paint a grim picture of a system where capacity for housing children was already strapped and turnover among placements was already high. Now many local foster-care systems are facing shortages of foster parents and outbreaks in group homes and residential facilities, making what was already an unstable situation for children even more volatile.

Ultimately, Jessica’s parents, older people at high risk for the virus living in a different state, volunteered to care for her foster son if needed. Fortunately, she never had to ask. Although Jessica and her foster son have since recovered, not all are so lucky. As states have closed and reopened, foster care has also been forced to pause and restart—and, in some cases, pause again. But a system designed to respond to emergencies can never completely pause.

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