May is Foster Care Month, May 15 the International Day of Families.  June is National Reunification Month, a complement in that the hope is for foster care to be temporary before children are reunited with their families.  These occasions evoke the enormous challenges facing children and families —challenges heightened during a pandemic— and how to help.

There is value in raising awareness through designation of a particular month (or week or day) to highlight a social issue.  Yet there is an arbitrary aspect; many such issues are potent every day.  Moreover, because problems and systems are interrelated, it can be distracting to view any one in isolation.

For example, May is not only Foster Care Month but also Mental Health Month and Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month.  April was both Child Abuse Prevention and Volunteer Month.  October is both Domestic Violence Awareness Month and Substance Abuse Prevention Month.  November is Adoption Month.  These are all important; often they’re connected.

Among the effects of COVID-19 are those related to domestic violence, child abuse, and neglect.  In Connecticut and beyond, there is reason to think they are under-reported.

A chilling Atlantic article is worth quoting at length:

“Under … social-distancing protocols, the worst-case scenario for people who live with an abuser has … materialized. Social workers, lawyers, and advocates have had to rapidly adjust their services in order to get help to domestic- and child-abuse victims who are trapped inside with their abusers…. people are stressed. They’re getting sick, losing loved ones, or worrying about getting sick or losing loved ones. The income loss … only adds to the daily anxiety. Plus, school cancellations mean that many parents have lost their regular affordable child care. Financial strain has been linked to increases in the frequency and severity of domestic abuse, and a 1 percent increase in the unemployment rate leads to a 25 percent increase in child neglect and a 12 percent increase in physical abuse, one study found. Other research has suggested that the stress from catastrophic events … can also increase the risk of domestic and family violence. All of this adds up to a potentially dangerous situation for those who live with their abusers —even before you consider the current lockdown protocols.”

The article continues, “Experts also worry that the coronavirus lockdowns are leading to a rise in child abuse … [though] reported cases of child abuse are actually down in several states and cities.”

In the New York Times, pediatrician Dr. Nina Agrawal urges: “Make use of technology for virtual check-ins. Look for signs of distress and remember that anyone can report concerns to child protective services, but also simply serve as a reassuring, reliable presence…. social distancing doesn’t have to mean emotional distancing.”

Still, there are concerns about housing instability; substance abuse amid more limited access to treatment; school closures, academic and social-emotional implications—including reduced access to mentoring relationships; and disproportionate effects of both conditions and interventions on people of color.  Parents face hardships visiting with their children in foster care.  From California to Ohio, West Virginia, and New York, states are struggling, budgets strained, and child welfare workers among those at increased risk.  The federal government is easing some requirements in order to help fund youth who would be aging out of foster care during this emergency.

In Connecticut, continuing progress in protecting children is in jeopardy.  Already, the foster system adds 2,000 children a year while taking responsibility for 4,000 at any one time; some ten thousand are under the court’s child protection jurisdiction in a single year.  Our state will need further collaboration of public and nonprofit actorsfrom the Governor’s Task Force on Justice for Abused ChildrenOffice of the Child Advocate, and Connecticut Alliance of Adoptive and Foster Families, to the Center for Children’s Advocacy and Children’s Law Center.  New Haven hosts, for example, Connecticut Voices for ChildrenClifford Beers‘r kids, Urban Community Alliance, and various school, university, faith-based, and hospital resources.  If possible, the aim is to return children to their families.  When that’s not feasible, foster care and adoption must be available.

Judges play a fundamental role in determining a child’s best interest in such cases.  The process also includes professional attorneys and social workers, for children from birth to adolescence.  But these professionals often have large caseloads.  Another key role is that of a court-appointed special advocate (CASA).

CASAs are volunteers whom judges appoint to advance the best interests of children who have experienced abuse or neglect.  These volunteers meet with children at least monthly (normally in person, currently remotely), linking them to resources and getting to know them and their situationsvia teachers and social workers, foster parents and families.  Carefully screened and trained as part of a national network improving outcomes for kids, CASAs make evidence-based recommendations to judges.  At the core: these caring, consistent volunteers’ relationships with the children themselves—with whom these adults can make a lifelong difference through one-on-one interactions.

During this Foster Care Month, the CEO of the National CASA Association, Tara Perry, said:

“Let’s all work together to support foster parents, child welfare professionals, CASA … volunteers and many others who are working … to meet the needs of children who have experienced abuse or neglect.  Let’s show these children they are not alone.”

The pandemic complicates this already weighty responsibility.  As Tara Perry told ABC News, “Our volunteers are needed to advocate for children and families now more than ever, not only to help judges make the most well-informed decisions for children and their families, but to build a system of support around children at this … unprecedented time.”

Such a “system of support” is what we should be pursuing for all children, always.  Now, extra ingenuity and vigilance may be required.  We need the creativity and good will of countless volunteers and professionals, as well as families and foster parents.  To those already engaged, our gratitude!  To those who might wish to join the cause—as community members, donors, citizens—welcome, with thanks.

Josiah H. Brown is executive director of CASA of Southern Connecticut (New Haven, New London, and Middlesex counties), part of the Connecticut CASA and  national CASA network.

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