Almost 100 children and teens living in residential facilities in California have caught the coronavirus, state officials confirmed this week, including infections at four group care programs in Los Angeles County.
The number of infected children is a fraction of the more than 2,600 foster youth in residential programs in the state. But it is nonetheless a sign of the rampage the virus has been on of late – striking not only prisons and nursing homes, but centers for children who have been taken from their parents due to abuse or neglect. Some youth have been sent to quarantine in trailers.
“We should be worried because there are a lot less eyes on these facilities, especially now during the pandemic,” said Jacqueline Robles, a 21-year-old former foster youth working as a peer advocate for the law firm representing Los Angeles County children.
Across the state, 95 youth living in congregate care facilities that serve as placements for foster youth have tested positive for the coronavirus since March, according to the California Department of Social Services. The facilities are designed to house children who need a higher level of care and treatment than foster homes or relatives can provide, and typically most have been moved multiple times during their childhoods.
News about the coronavirus cases at children’s residential facilities come at a time when the pandemic has worsened up and down the state. At a daily briefing on Wednesday, Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said that COVID-19-related deaths are expected to rise in the weeks to come because of a recent uptick in hospitalizations, which have grown by 30% over the past month. A day before, California officials announced 11,694 coronavirus cases — a record one-day total for the state — followed by its highest-ever daily death toll during the pandemic: 149 deaths.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said if that trend continues, the county could be in for a return of even stricter stay-at-home measures.
Youth in residential programs have been particularly isolated during the pandemic. As a result of safety precautions, they have been cut off from visitors, including friends, family members and court-appointed special advocates. Regular outings have also been curtailed.
The absence of those connections, including the inability to see classmates at school, has created a deeply lonely experience for foster youth at congregate facilities, said Robles, who spent her junior and senior years of high school at a Hollywood group home. She remembers how much she looked forward to weekend trips to the beach and to the movies with staff.
“That was often the only time to get out of that space,” she said. “Living in a group is already a very lonely place, and I can’t imagine during the pandemic how much worse that is, when you can only see staff and your social worker. They’re losing a lot of their support systems right now.”
The first COVID-19 cases at Los Angeles area residential facilities emerged in April, when six foster youth and 22 staff tested positive at Star View Center in Torrance, a locked facility for young people with serious mental health issues. That number has since grown to eight youth and 27 staff.
Over the past month, there have been at least three more facilities for foster youth that have reported infections, according to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. They include programs run by Optimist Youth Homes and Family Services, where 12 staff members and three youth have been infected and a residential treatment facility run by Hathaway-Sycamores in Altadena, where five staff and six young people were infected. In addition, two foster youth with COVID-19 were quarantined in a hastily licensed, previously unused cottage on the campus of a shelter run by Wayfinder Family Services.
In Los Angeles County, according to officials with the Department of Children and Family Services, 69 foster youth have been infected by the coronavirus since the pandemic began, and 26 of those young people have been placed in residential facilities. Children living in group care make up less than 5% of all foster care placements in Los Angeles County, but they represent about 38% of all coronavirus cases among foster youth.
As part of its pandemic response, the department has given residential providers two trailers to use as quarantine space for up to six youth.
Amara Suarez, a spokeswoman with the Department of Children and Family Services, said county officials continue to monitor coronavirus exposure in residential facilities and have helped plan for the medical and mental health needs of the children. Her department’s efforts also include assisting residential care providers to follow protocols for congregate care facilities set by the Department of Public Health and providing personal protective equipment “when available.”
Still, Suarez stated in an email: “We remain concerned for the well-being of youth and staff.”
Jay Allen, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Wayfinder Family Services, said taking care of youth during the pandemic in both its shelter and short-term therapeutic residential program has been challenging. A nurse on staff has helped provide guidance on health plans, but the youth living at its facilities are often dealing with mental health issues that can make them defiant and reluctant to practice proper social distancing.
“What we’re telling staff is to socially distance when possible, but realistically we know it’s not,” Allen said. “Staff are scared to death, and you can’t blame them.”
The nonprofit has increased hazard pay during the pandemic and is now paying an extra $2 an hour for all employees, $5 an hour for those working with young people in isolation and $10 an hour for staff caring for infected youth.
Workers have also benefited from state law that considers county employees “disaster service workers” during the pandemic. At Wayfinder, several DCFS social workers have provided round-the-clock care for a foster youth with the coronavirus who had to be isolated in a cottage on campus.
County social workers have also helped care for youth under the supervision of the Hathaway-Sycamores agency who had to be isolated in county trailers for two weeks. Agency staff have used the benefits of a state program that provides two weeks in hotels for workers who need to avoid infecting their own households.
All six young people who contracted the virus at Hathaway-Sycamores were living in a single cottage, and Vice President of Residential Programs Gina Peck-Sobolewski said further spread was prevented by quick isolation and video cameras that helped trace the virus’s transmission among youth and staff at the facility.
Peck-Sobolewski said her agency regularly screens staff and youth for symptoms and takes their temperatures. But she wants the county to test youth before they arrive and when they depart the facility to live in family-based foster care placements.
Stepping children down from the facilities into family homes has sometimes been a challenge because of some foster parents’ reluctance and concerns over coronavirus exposure, she said.
For now, foster youth in residential care are having to be isolated in trailers when they display COVID-19 symptoms.
“The kids see it as an adventure at first, but after a while, they realize it’s a small space, it’s not like going camping, and they’re not going anywhere,” Peck-Sobolewski said. “It’s not a fun situation for them after a certain amount of time.”
This article has been updated to note that Optimist Youth Homes and Family Services has had three cases of COVID-19 among youth at its residential facilities, according to the organization.
Jeremy Loudenback is a senior editor for The Imprint and can be reached at [email protected].