CIARA LONG, HOST: Many parents with children in foster care are now facing an unthinkable situation. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, they’re no longer able to visit their children. New York state and city have released emergency guidelines saying in-person visits should continue if they can happen safely. But they’ve left the ultimate decision up to the non-profit agencies that place and monitor kids in foster care. As Anya Schultz reports most have decided that for now, parental visits aren’t worth the health risk.
ANYA SCHULTZ: Ambrosia Ford is 30 years old. She lives in a rural town in upstate New York and has a daughter who’s two and half.
AMBROSIA FORD: She’s very bubbly, energetic. Generally a very happy, very happy 2-year-old.
SCHULTZ: A couple weeks ago, Ford took her daughter to visit with the child’s dad, even though she has an order of protection against him. He’d been abusive to Ford in the past. But she thought visits were still allowed and she wanted her daughter to be able to see her dad. Child protective services didn’t agree. That evening they took her daughter. She’s now in foster care. Ford can only see her on FaceTime.
FORD: She does not have the attention span to sit and FaceTime. I mean, when we first get on video call, she's happy seeing me. But when we start saying goodbye she gets very, very upset.
SCHULTZ: Ford said caseworkers were coming in and out of her home before taking her daughter but now they won't let her go see her daughter. And it’s been really hard.
FORD: I've never been away from her in two years. Like I am an addict. And addicts cope by using and I'm trying not to do that. Because of my child.
SCHULTZ: 19-year-old Jasmine in the Bronx has also been trying to regain custody of her daughter. She asked that we not use her last name because her case is still open.
Jasmine has a developmental disability and when she gave birth last September, the hospital was concerned about her ability to care for the baby. They reported her to a child abuse hotline and children’s services put the baby in foster care. Since then, Jasmine’s had supervised visits with her daughter twice a week. But for the past month, she’s only seen her 8-month-old baby over video.
JASMINE: I really miss her so much. Cause I be seeing other mothers with their kids and I'm looking like, where's my daughter? Come on.
SCHULTZ: New York State law gives parents the right to visit their children in foster care, as long as the court says it doesn’t put the child in danger. But throw a global pandemic into the mix, and that safety issue gets a lot more complicated. Now foster agencies face a question. What’s a greater risk? The spread of a disease or the emotional harm of family separation?
Officials from the federal, state, and city level have suggested in-person visits should continue, if they're safe. But New York City contracts with 23 non-profit foster agencies, and the ultimate decision of whether parents and children can see each other lies with them.
MURIEL BELL: What we're actually seeing on the ground is very different from the guidance.
SCHULTZ: Muriel Bell is a social worker with the Bronx Defenders, a public defense office that represents parents in family court. She doesn’t know of any in-person visits that have happened since the outbreak.
BELL: Foster care workers and ACS caseworkers are essential employees. And they're not really acting as essential employees right now.
SCHULTZ: ACS says its workers will still enter homes when it is safe to investigate child abuse or neglect. And if parents can’t visit their children in person, they're supplying devices for families who need them for video visits. Audia McEachron is a supervisor at a foster agency called Rising Ground. She says her agency is doing nearly all visits virtually because of health risks.
AUDIA MCEACHRON: With what’s been happening with COVID-19, we do have to adhere to social distancing. A lot of parents have decided that they don't want their children outside and they would prefer to see their children via video chat or a phone call.
SCHULTZ: The idea that in the short term virtual visits could prevent the spread of disease makes sense for Kerry Moles. She’s the executive director of New York City’s CASA, an organization that assigns volunteers to assist children in family court.
KERRY MOLES: It's very common that the foster parent is elderly. So having any level of exposure to people coming in and out of the house could put them at risk.
SCHULTZ: But Moles says parental visits are also important for kids’ development. About half of the foster kids in New York City are under five years old.
MOLES: Their ability to have regular contact with their parents is really important to their development, to their ability to sort of cope with the separation, to deal with the trauma that they might have experienced.
SCHULTZ: Plus, in order to get their kids back, parents have to show the government they’re ready. That could mean parenting classes, substance abuse programs or successful supervised visits. As parents get closer to regaining custody of their kids, these visits get longer, sometimes overnight or for the weekend.
MOLES: It's part of the parent demonstrating to the court that they're able to be present for their child and interact in a positive, healthy way with their child.
SCHULTZ: And New York City recognizes how important these visits are. The city has spent $1.3 million dollars over the past two years on a program to improve family time. But there’s also a ticking clock that has many parents nervous. If children are in foster care for 15 out of 22 months, the state can start the process of terminating a parent’s rights. So, the thought of not having visits worries advocates like Alexis Pleus. She runs a non profit called Truth Pharm that helps parents recovering from addiction.
ALEXIS PLEUS: They're all on a timeline. They all have to meet certain requirements, see their children a certain amount of times. Nobody knows right now what their rights are going to be down the road when this is, you know, when the New York state pause is lifted.
SCHULTZ: She says, for now, one thing seems to be clear.. the longer this virus lasts… the longer parents go without seeing their kids… the longer kids will be in foster care. Anya Schultz, Columbia Radio News.