GREY CITY

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April 12, 2021

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7:58 p.m.

Losing Faith in the Child Welfare System: Illinois Parents and Foster Caregivers Struggle During the COVID-19 Shutdowns

Melissa Martinez and her son.

Melissa Martinez and her son.

Courtesy of Kelly Curry

Note: The Maroon has used the pseudonym “Ryan” to protect the privacy of Martinez’s son. Foster caregivers’ names have been excluded to protect the privacy of the children in their care. 

In March 2020, Melissa Martinez was about to reunite with her one-year-old son, Ryan, after eight months apart. She had lost custody of him to the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) in July 2019. Since then, she had been staying at a treatment facility while she navigated family court hearings and job searches. She worked hard to get her life back on track so that she could take care of her son again. The reunification hearing was scheduled for March 23, 2020, but COVID-19 forced all family court hearings to be indefinitely delayed. DCFS terminated all in-person visits between parents and children in state custody. Martinez would not hold her son again for another four months. 

“[COVID-19] just threw everything in the air,” said Martinez. “And for my son, it was overwhelming and confusing because he’s two—he doesn’t understand why he can’t see me like he was. All of a sudden, everything just stopped.”

The Illinois child welfare system has scrambled to shift its programming online and keep the children in its care safe. Children, parents, foster parents, and caseworkers have had to improvise through an unpredictable year full of separation and frustration. Meanwhile, the pandemic has brought attention to fault lines in the system and undermined parents’ trust. Martinez expected DCFS to help her as she worked to build a stable life for her son. Recent reforms at DCFS would make it seem that her expectations were well-founded, and Martinez asked for assistance as she worked to get Ryan back. With time, though, she lost hope that DCFS would help her. 

When Martinez first lost Ryan, she was not allowed to see him at all. By March 2020, though, he was staying overnight at her residential treatment center every week. Ryan’s foster mother, Kelly Curry, described how hard it was for her to separate them every time she went to pick him up. “He is so bonded with his mom. When I would come pick him up, every time, he would just give me the stink eye.” 

During the lockdown, Martinez could only talk to him over video chat. She called every night. “She would say goodnight to him,” said Curry. “She was so afraid he would forget about her.” 

Martinez spent most of her own childhood in foster care. All too often, time in foster care initiates a vicious, intergenerational cycle, as youth who graduate from foster care are more likely to struggle with childhood trauma and financial instability. At the age of 18, for example, foster care youth are between two and four times more likely to suffer with mental illness and addiction than the general population. Martinez said that her own experience in foster care “opened my eyes to [what] exactly my son is feeling and going through.” 

Still, she was thankful that her son’s experience in foster care was much easier than her own. After four months, Martinez was able to see him once a week. DCFS was still not facilitating visits in June, so Curry had to drive downtown to pick Martinez up from her treatment center and then drive her back to her house to spend two hours with Ryan. If Curry had not been willing to do the legwork, Martinez would have gone even longer without seeing Ryan. 

“The one thing I’ve learned,” Curry said, “[is] that you love your kids no matter what. No matter what drove you to do whatever you did to your kids, this is all really hard.” 

By August, Martinez was able to see her son in person. She held him for the first time in months. Still, the pandemic threatened to prolong her son’s time in foster care: Her treatment facility’s lockdown was so strict that she could not go into work. She could not even leave to get a legal photo ID. Without photo ID, finding a stable home or employment was much harder. 

She was only able to remain employed because her boss was sympathetic. If she had lost her job, the courts may not have approved her reunification with Ryan. What’s more, the complex web of legal requirements bewildered Martinez; she depended on public defenders to help her navigate the court’s requirements, but they only called her when a hearing was approaching. 

“I don’t know very much about the legal system or DCFS. I’ve never had to deal with it before,” she said. “I don’t know what my rights are, really. Nobody tells me.” 

Family courts resumed hearings remotely on July 6. In August, Martinez and her son finally had a virtual reunification hearing. In all, he had spent more than five months in foster care after she had completed all that the courts had required of her. 

Until 2018, DCFS services focused on the child. Since the federal Family First Prevention Services Act became law in 2018, states have been under pressure to restructure their family welfare services to prevent the separation of children from their natural parents. To receive federal funding, DCFS has to show that it has a plan to provide preventative services that help families stay together. DCFS should help families meet their basic needs and assist parents with addiction and other mental illnesses for which people in poverty struggle to afford treatment. However, broad, community-wide services are a hefty, expensive undertaking. Meanwhile, the pandemic has put increased pressure on parents in those same low-income communities. 

Family First spells the beginning of nationwide reform, but it is still in its early stages of implementation. On March 31, the Acting Director of DCFS, Marc Smith, testified before Illinois state lawmakers about the challenges and progress DCFS has seen during the pandemic. “We submitted our Family First plan to the federal government last year, but we have already moved to adopt and implement our plan and start operating under its guidance in providing evidence-based prevention services,” Smith said. 

DCFS has not done much to help Martinez since she and Ryan reunited. “Everybody’s told me that they’re there to assist you, they’re going to help you [get everything] you need to get your life back in order and have your child and have a stable life and—oh well, sometimes you got to do things yourself,” she said. 

As DCFS kept falling short on its promises, Martinez lost hope. Her caseworker assured her that DCFS would help her pay for child care so that she could work. Then, she told Martinez that DCFS could provide no more than $600, enough for only two weeks of daycare. Martinez turned down the offer because she needed a more stable source of child care in order to get a job. Her caseworker promised to help her find affordable housing. Earlier in the pandemic, she told Martinez that she was waiting to submit the application because she did not want it to go through before Martinez and Ryan’s reunification. Now, she is telling Martinez that the pandemic has created a backlog and that she will have to wait. 

Martinez does not know how much the pandemic is to blame. “They usually just say, ‘Oh, the pandemic, the pandemic is to blame for this, this, and this,’ but I couldn’t tell you. I don’t know,” she said. 

Martinez has left her treatment facility and now lives with friends. The pandemic has made it that much more difficult for her to rebuild her life. Ryan’s father died in February 2020, so Martinez is now a single mother. As of this February, she was struggling to find a job. She had applied to a steady stream of positions through Google until she realized that most of the listings did not reflect businesses’ reduced capacity due to COVID-19. She had finally found a temp agency that offered her an interview. 

Martinez has given up hope that DCFS will help her. “I really don’t know if it’s going to work, but my plan is to take the tax return money that I’m going to get for this year’s taxes and try to get myself an apartment, just without anybody’s help.” 

She and Curry, though, have remained close, and Curry takes care of Ryan when Martinez needs child care. “She not only cares about my kid, but I know she cared about me and [Ryan’s] dad as well and she always tried to help us,” Martinez said. “I don’t think I’ll ever not talk to her.” 

 

The Pain of Separation 

Melissa and Ryan were not the only mother and child to struggle with indefinite separation during the early stage of the pandemic. Kelly Veronda, a DCFS caseworker, explained that many younger children struggled to engage with their parents over video calls. At first, they were excited; talking to their siblings or parents through a phone felt like a playing with a new toy. “But a lot of the kids struggled,” said Veronda. “After a few times, it’s not meeting that need of seeing them and touching them and interacting with them.” 

Interrupting the bond between a parent and a child within the first few years of life can have lifelong consequences, including withdrawal, chronic anxiety, and aggressive behavior. 

DCFS began to facilitate visits again on July 15, but Veronda explained that they are still difficult to coordinate. Video calls are still the only safe option for many children who have preexisting conditions, and even healthy parents and children cannot count on seeing each other in person regularly. “Obviously, if anyone has been exposed, then we can’t do a visit,” she said. “So we’re constantly having to change, maybe [go] back and forth with some families from video visits [to] in-person visits.” 

Nichole Robinson-Anyaso administers a privately run foster care agency at Ada S. McKinley Community Services in Chicago. She said that coordinating visits has been one of the pandemic’s biggest challenges. With libraries and other public spaces closed, finding a place where parents and children can meet has been a constant challenge. Although outdoor visits are safest, icy temperatures make them unfeasible during the winter. She explained that while DCFS offers its offices for visitations, appointments are limited because the space has to be thoroughly cleaned after each family leaves. 

More than 11,000 parents in Illinois went months without seeing their children. Last May, the public defender’s office sued DCFS on behalf of four mothers trying to pressure the agency to facilitate visits, but a judge dismissed the case. Meanwhile, the Shriver Poverty Law Center led the “Black Families Matter” campaign to persuade DCFS to allow parents to see their children. More than 70 percent of the families in the child welfare system in Cook County are Black, a demographic which comprises only 23 percent of the county’s population. In a statement published in June 2020, the Center said, “It is high time for DCFS to address the disparate impact of its policies on Black families and lift the ban on in-person, supervised visits.” 

Visitations also pose an additional infection risk for both biological and foster parents. One foster caregiver, who fosters a two-year-old boy, gave birth to a baby girl during quarantine. “We were a little bit concerned about [visitations], just still having a younger baby in the home, obviously, and not wanting anyone to contract anything.” 

She and her husband did not know how careful the biological mother was being, and the mother did not know how careful they were being. Visitations opened all of them to unknown risk. 

“We just had to have a lot of conversations with the caseworker who was still supervising at that point in time and [make] sure that masks were being worn by the adults,” she said. “We knew social distancing wasn’t going to be easy when [the biological mother] hadn’t seen her son in so long.” 

The reunification of children with their natural parents is one way to permanently end the pain of separation. The pandemic created a backlog in the court system that delayed many reunifications, but delayed hearings and slow-moving cases were already a problem before the pandemic. Another foster caregiver expressed frustration with the court system and DCFS bureaucracy. Since the fall, she has been fostering a baby girl. Within the first two months that a child is in DCFS’s care, there should be a “child and family team meeting” that brings together the foster caregivers, the parents, the caseworker, and any other people involved in a child’s case. The meeting should have been scheduled within 40 days after she picked up her foster daughter from the hospital where she was born. That was long before the March shutdowns, but DCFS took eight months to schedule the meeting. By the time the meeting finally happened, COVID-19 was old news. 

“A lot of it is COVID,” she said, “[but] a lot of it is blamed on COVID even when it isn’t COVID.” 

She explained that the delay in her foster daughter’s case would postpone her daughter’s chance at living in a stable home. The initial court hearings have yet to be held, which will push back all of the subsequent stages in her case. She said that DCFS has the contact information for the girl’s grandmother, who is caring for her other grandchild, but has not notified her that the baby has been born and is in foster care. “Obviously, family is best,” she said. “And it would be ideal if a family member could take her and give her what she needs.” 

If no family member could take care of her, she could eventually be adopted. For children in foster care, the possibility of being moved to another family can keep them from trusting that the relationships they have built will last. Adoption is one way to end that uncertainty. The constant delays in her foster daughter’s case make both reunification and adoption distant possibilities for her foster daughter. 

The mother who fosters a two-year-old has also been frustrated with how slowly her foster son’s case has progressed. “He’s been with us for 15 months,” she said in late January. “They still haven’t gone through the initial stage, that initial adjudication—well, they still haven’t had the trial.” His case has been held up because DCFS is trying to find the biological fathers of children who were in the same home as him, even though they are not his siblings. The cases are only tethered because of a bureaucratic technicality that keeps together cases from the same home. 

Veronda, the DCFS caseworker, was also worried that the pandemic would keep more children in unpredictable living situations. Every case worker works towards either fully reuniting a child with their birth family or helping them find a new adoptive family. Veronda explained that some counties in Illinois, not including Cook, do not allow reunification without an in-person hearing, stranding children in foster care indefinitely. She said that the larger problem has been a backup in the court system. Some judges are giving parents extra time to fulfill the court-ordered services that they need to complete to regain custody of their children. 

“Some [parents] have really taken advantage of being able to do stuff by phone and work on services faster,” Veronda said. “Then I have others that just don’t follow through with anything, and they use [the pandemic] as an excuse.” 

Veronda explained that the court delays create a buildup of active cases, which in turn means fewer placements for children entering DCFS’s care. Once a child is adopted, their foster family is able to take in more children. DCFS limits the number of foster children staying with one family but does not count adopted children towards that number. With court cases stalled, there have been fewer adoptions. The backup exacerbates the state’s chronic lack of placements with licensed foster families at a time when the need is higher than ever. As reported in the first article in this series, children have been staying for weeks and months in temporary shelters, psychiatric wards, and out-of-state placements because DCFS has not recruited enough foster families. 

However, the pandemic has also brought some welcome changes. One foster mother told The Maroon that she has benefitted from the increased accessibility of online court. She used to have to take a bus and a train to attend her foster son’s court dates. “With everything being on Zoom, I don’t have to take a day off of work,” she said. “I don’t have to try and figure out how I’m going to get to the courthouse, because I work downtown.… It’s actually made it a lot easier for me to be able to attend the court cases and then really try and understand what’s happening in this case and understand what the next steps are.” 

 

Foster Parents Take on More 

More than anything, Veronda is worried about how the pandemic has affected the services available to children in foster care. Normally, a child might have in-person counseling, physical therapy, tutoring, and other support to help them and their foster parents. “My personal opinion,” she said, “is that the services that are by phone or video are just not very effective and are not what the children need.” 

Veronda works with 16 youth whose ages range from just a few months to 20 years old. Three of them are “specialized” cases, which means that they need intensive support because of extreme behavioral or medical issues. 

“A lot of our providers are doing things by phone, and that’s just not really meeting their needs,” she said. “At the beginning, things just kind of stopped for a while, and then if their provider happens to get exposed or is sick then there’s no provider for the week that they need to recover.” 

Veronda works with children across the state, and each county’s public schools have handled the pandemic differently. “I definitely feel like education has not been effective for the ones that are working remotely,” she said. “So, we really unfortunately have been relying on foster parents to pick that up. And that’s an added stressor for them as well…I’ve definitely seen that be more of a stress—it adds more emotional instability for the kids that I’m working with.” 

The Maroon spoke to a foster mother who described how hard it has been to take on the work of teachers, caseworkers, and therapists during the pandemic. She and her mother foster four children, ages one, seven, 10, and 11. Three of her foster children have asthma, so they have had to be especially careful to avoid exposure to COVID-19. She decided to enroll them in a charter school in part because it committed to remote learning for the academic year. She has experience in therapy and early childhood development, and her mother is able to parent full-time, so they are able to take in children who need extra support. “We’re really their last place before they either get rehospitalized or hospitalized or go into a group home,” she explained. “We’re the supplemental force. We fill in a lot of the gaps.” 

Her youngest foster child’s speech and motor skills had been delayed when she first joined her family. “She’s caught up really fast,” she said. “But it’s been really hard, too, to feel that extra pressure of catching those milestones when normally there would be in-person visits where [therapists] would get to be able to actually see them walking or get to work with her on their talking more.” 

Her seven-year-old foster son has a wide array of services which now take place over video calls. He spends hours on Zoom during the school day and then has calls with counselors and tutors. “He doesn’t ever participate, really,” she said. “He struggles to be in class and just acts out more.” The heavy Zoom schedule made her son so frustrated that he punched a window. “It’s just that frustration and that buildup and not being able to get to go see your therapist or get to go run in the park regularly.” 

Her 10-year-old foster son is in fourth grade, but he cannot read. Before he joined her family, he had never been in the same school for a full year. She is advocating for him to get more academic support, but she has struggled. “He’s really behind and hasn’t been able to get diagnosed with the help that he needs,” she said. “I still would have teachers be like, ‘Well, okay, get him to do his assignment, get him to do his homework.’… They have no clue what we’re dealing with at all.… I’m just trying to get him to have some basic hygiene and care for himself and [develop] reading skills.” 

Every child is different, though, and her oldest foster son has thrived in the remote learning environment. “He’s got social anxiety,” she said. “He’s enjoying school now, and his grades are going up.” 

He is only 11, but he is already talking about doing college online. However, she is worried that the isolation is reinforcing his antisocial behaviors. 

She actually took in her two younger foster children during the pandemic. She knew that her older son needed social interaction to work through his anxiety, and her 10-year-old was lonely. Both of them are separated from their younger biological sisters and have struggled by being unable to see them. She is urging family court to relocate one of the sisters to her home, but progress is slow. “So I took in more kids, and it was something that I knew there was a need for, as well as it was going to be better for all the kids in the house.” 

During the pandemic, she moved. She had hoped that her new apartment would have a backyard where her foster children could play outside, but the yard is dangerous. “There’s just like broken glass and all this stuff, and they charge us some regular cleaning fee,” she said. 

Finding an apartment with enough space for her family and within commuting distance from the library where she works has been challenging. She never expected her DCFS stipend to cover her costs, but her pay was delayed when she was sick with what her doctor believes was COVID-19. DCFS is aware that the pandemic has put extra stress on foster parents’ finances, so it gave parents an extra $400 over the summer. “That was nice for the time being,” she said. “But [it’s] not like everything is always affordable when it comes to the kids in care and what they need to adjust.” 

In remarks to Illinois state legislators, Smith outlined how DCFS is working to address its systemic issues and improve the services it offers to children, parents, and caregivers. He described how DCFS has struggled to attract and retain qualified staff. Smith said that the work can be “demanding and overwhelming.” Without enough staff, the job is even more taxing. 

He explained that DCFS has focused on building relationships with universities, improving its training, and adopting a more competitive, private sector approach to hiring. 

He emphasized that progress is on its way: “In just the last three months, we added 163 new staff and now have the highest on-board headcount in over 10 years.” 

Smith described other measures that DCFS is taking to improve the care it offers youth and their families. He pointed to Family Advocacy Centers that offer mentoring, parenting education, after school, financial literacy training, and other services to families involved with DCFS. DCFS also supports an Extended Family Support Program which helps caregivers who are taking care of their relatives’ children. 

Near the end of his statement, he wrote: “The challenges we face at DCFS are longstanding. Years of underfunding the department and neglecting the development of resources the most vulnerable children in Illinois needed, can’t be reversed overnight.” 

Many of the problems that foster caregivers and parents have faced during the pandemic have their roots in larger systemic problems related to underfunding. Lawmakers are aware that the system needs reform, and there are signs of progress. DCFS has requested an additional $100 million for its 2022 budget, and Governor J. B. Pritzker has included the increase in his proposed budget for the 2022 fiscal year. If it is approved, DCFS would have another $17 million to spend on helping families like Martinez’s. The budget for foster homes would receive a 37 percent increase, which could lighten the load on parents.  

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