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COVID-19 shutdown cuts off foster children from birth parents

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

The coronavirus pandemic has upended routines for Cynthia Johnson and her three foster children.

The Oakland County resident is busy caring for a 1-year-old while crafting a curriculum for the elder boys, ages 5 and 6, to ensure they continue learning while out of school as a statewide precaution.

Michael Johnson teaches his foster son how to ride his bike, Wednesday, April 8, 2020.

Johnson and her husband, Michael, also arrange for more frequent phone contact with the boys' relatives, the mother of the younger two, who are siblings, as well as the father of the eldest child, since social distancing has left them unable to see their birth families face-to-face.

"My job is to make sure that these kids are safe," said Johnson, 62, adding she's stopped all in-person visits with her own three grown children, grandchildren and friends. "We have to look out for ourselves, and we both have to look out for the kids."

Child welfare agencies in Michigan are navigating a unique set of challenges in the wake of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's "stay home, stay safe" order. The emergency directive has cut off most birth parents from in-person visits with their children, and it's prompting worry that households providing foster care or completing certification will pause amid job losses and health and safety concerns for their own families. 

Janet Reynolds Snyder, executive director of the Michigan Federation for Children and Families, said the face-to-face contact restrictions are meant to guard health. But access to biological family members is critical for foster children, she said, and alternative efforts to connect by phone and video applications are now being made "on a regular, if not an elevated basis."

"We understand that all families are under strain," said Snyder, who heads the Lansing-based association that encompasses about 60 family support and child welfare service agencies statewide. "Those who have children who are out of their homes right now are understandably worried."

JooYeun Chang, executive director of Michigan's Children’s Services Agency with the state's Department of Health and Human Services, said discontinuing in-person contact was not a measure taken lightly.

The move, she said, was "controversial" and "frankly, really painful" for the administration. 

"We waited until all evidence suggested it was a public health issue and we needed to do what we needed to do to protect the health and wellness of families, birth parents and our workers," Chang told The News. 

Michael Johnson tightens his foster son's helmet strap as foster mother Cynthia Johnson, who does not want her face shown, helps, Wednesday morning, April 8, 2020.

There are currently about 12,500 children in foster care in Michigan, according to MDHHS.

Children enter the foster care system because they are determined to be at risk due to child abuse or neglect by their parent or caregiver. Suspected abuse is reported to the state's Children's Protective Services, MDHHS spokesman Bob Wheaton said. 

"In many instances, when abuse or neglect is found, MDHHS provides services to the family to keep the children in their homes safely," he said in an email. In 2019, about 54% of the children in the system ultimately returned home to their biological families. 

Starr Allen-Pettway, branch director for Bethany Christian Services of Detroit, understands Whitmer's order "is very important for us to flatten the curve related to COVID-19," but she doesn't want the children and their needs to be forgotten. 

The Christian services agency serves 171 children in Michigan through its three offices, about 65% of which are from Wayne County, Allen-Pettway said. 

"Families working really hard to reunify with their children are unable to physically touch and see them as a result of the stay home, stay safe order," she said. "Now the kids are unable to visit with their parents at all. These could be very young children now struggling with 'why am I not seeing my family.'"

Jillian Gismondi, a licensed professional counselor with the Child and Family Solutions Center in Farmington Hills, said she's expecting children to struggle as they try to regain normalcy. Being separated from their friends and regular routine amplifies the feeling of "grief and loss," she said. 

"Kids are missing a huge chunk of their world right now," she said. "Globally, this is uncharted territory for all of us."

Equally as troubling, school district and community activity shutdowns mean there "aren't eyes on the children the same way" to monitor their physical and mental well-being, Snyder and Allen-Pettway noted.

Chang said the state's abuse and neglect hotline usually gets about 200,000 calls each year and about 90,000 investigations are conducted annually by child protective services. Most calls, she said, are allegations of neglect and enable struggling families to get resources to help. 

There has been a drop in calls since the schools closed last month under the governor's order and that's a risk, said Chang, noting housing instability, poverty and mental health and substance abuse issues that many struggle with.

Part of the child welfare network is based upon the concept of "see something, say something." With fewer eyes on kids, Chang said, "that's not going to happen."

"That's the thing that keeps me up at night,"  she said. "The reality is, there's some level of having less surveillance. What we have right now is an invisible problem."

Michael Johnson, left, and his wife, Cynthia Johnson, right, hold hands with one of their foster sons, Wednesday, April 8, 2020.

To cope, the state is working with community partners and philanthropic organizations on targeted services and support to reduce risks as well as with the office of the state's superintendent to ensure teachers who engage virtually with students also are vigilant. 

For all families, the circumstances can be stressful as they navigate their way through the new normal. For those already struggling, it will be even more challenging, Gismondi added. 

"Anyone who has an additional stressor in their life, this pandemic placed on top of it is going to make an individual even more anxious," she said. 

As of March 20, there were 5,531 active licensed foster families in Michigan. The average length of stay for children exiting care in 2019 was 760 days, according to MDHHS.

Chang said not all foster homes are ready and willing to take a child today, and most days, officials struggle to find the right bed for a child. 

About 40% of foster children are with relatives, she said. If the number of children needing placement goes up, they hope to continue with that trend.

"We have more homes than kids who need a bed today," she said. "We need to be ready in case we do have a surge in the number of kids that come into foster care at any one point."

Snyder said there is some concern foster parents are pausing to assess how the health emergency goes. Even in the best of conditions, she said, organizations are always looking to recruit new families.

"It's definitely a concern. Will interest in fostering children stay the same, will it increase, will it decrease? Time will tell here," she said. "We really don't know the full extent of that just yet." 

Kristyn Peck is chief executive officer of the West Michigan Partnership for Children, an organization that works with five foster care agencies and accounts for the care of close to 800 children under a public-private partnership in Kent County. The willingness of fosters there hasn't slowed yet, but it could, she said. 

"I would anticipate as there is more fear about the spread of COVID-19, that would be a very natural reaction especially for families with people in their home at higher risk," she said. 

In Kent County, there hasn't been a surge in coronavirus cases like the east side of the state has experienced.

"We're trying to make sure that we're preparing for that and also keeping up on our recruitment of foster families," Peck said. "There's just never enough foster families already."

Peck said the emergency restrictions prompted her organization to cancel community recruitment events, including two large-scale programs for foster parents, a resource fair and annual spring conference, each expected to draw a crowd of more than 100 adults and children.

Michael Johnson teaches his foster son how to ride his bike, Wednesday, April 8, 2020.

"It takes seven times for a person to interact with a foster parent recruiter before they sign up," she said. "It's more of a concern of losing momentum in people where the seed has been planted."

Peck said her group is planning and preparing for a potential upswing in the need for placement. It also is doing what it can to support the existing foster base, sending out virtual e-cards for Amazon shopping and grocery delivery, "to ease as much as we can and provide that type of support," she said. 

Debora Matthews, CEO of the Children's Center in Detroit, said her group has about 125 children in foster care. Its independent living program — which includes those ages 16 and older who don't want to be adopted — accounts for another 65 youths. 

Lynda Dandridge, director of child welfare services for the children's center, said the agency's foster families have stepped up, and the need is great. The agency hasn't closed its intake and foster parents are still taking in kids. 

"Foster parents have not said ‘no, I’m not going to take them.’  We haven’t had that," Dandridge said. "They’ve been taking the kids, which is really a true blessing because these babies still need stability and some love."

cferretti@detroitnews.com