For Foster Youth, Stability Is Even Harder to Find During the Pandemic

Illustration by Christine Ongjoco

With Californians hunkered down to stop the vicious spread of coronavirus, three Los Angeles County sisters are stranded 400 miles from the places they call home, with no idea when they will be able to return.

Every night, the foster youth fall asleep on inflatable mattresses on the living room floor of their brother’s two-bedroom Sacramento apartment. It’s a far cry from their life in March, when they were living in foster homes close to family and friends.

For young people growing up in the foster care system, there is nothing too unusual about being moved, time and again, from one home to the next. They stuff their lifelong belongings into a duffel bag, unwilling players in a callous game of musical chairs where the music never stops playing. 

But amid the punishing pace of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, the normal upheaval of life in foster care presents challenges previously uncontemplated, let alone planned for.

Aging relative caregivers and foster parents have become sick, or fear for their safety with teenagers going in and out of their homes. Services and supports have been disrupted. Courts that can approve emergency homes are shut down or holding only a limited number of hearings. And teens who had come to call college dorms home struggle to find anywhere else to go. 

While the pandemic has not created the widespread disruptions of the state’s foster care system as some feared two months ago, foster youth infected with the coronavirus — while few in number — appear to be those with the fewest options for home-based care. One boy recently landed at the county hospital after one caregiver fell ill, and — after a two-hour drive — the next foster parent refused to take the sick child in. Children separated from family who are living in group care facilities may be placed in trailers to keep them isolated. One teen said she left her foster home for an errand, only to find that she won’t be welcome back until the pandemic has passed.

Before the coronavirus began its rampage through the nation’s most populous county, Natasha, 18, and her youngest sister, 13, had been living together in a Southeast Los Angeles County foster home for three years. Another sister, 15, lived 10 blocks away, an easy walk. The Imprint is not identifying the younger sisters because they are minors in foster care. The oldest sister, Natasha, agreed to be identified by her first name only.

As the pandemic quickly escalated, Natasha’s foster mother shared some surprising news: Although social workers and the juvenile court had determined the three sisters were not safe at home with their biological parents, they were headed back there to shelter in place. The court had recently allowed the teens home for overnight visits on the weekend. But the teens insisted they did not feel safe enough to move back home permanently, preferring instead to live in foster homes, they said in a series of interviews.

Natasha said social workers told her the move was necessary because of concerns about the possible infection of elderly family members in the foster home where she and her young sister had been living. As a result, she said, the child welfare agency decided to move the teens – and their 15-year-old sister who had been living in the other foster home – back with their parents temporarily, until the threat from the coronavirus had run its course. 

At first, going home with mom and dad felt exciting, Natasha said. For the first time since the girls had entered foster care nine years ago, the family would all live together again, in one of modern America’s most desperate times.

Virginia Pryor, deputy director of L.A.’s Department of Children and Family Services, said so far, her agency — which is responsible for nearly 18,000 foster children placed in out-of-home care — has been able to find solutions to housing emergencies during the coronavirus pandemic. Department officials do not comment on individual cases because of legal confidentiality, but noted in an email that its workers are “committed to reunifying children with their parents, when safe to do so.” 

Natasha and her two younger sisters in 2012, shortly after they had been placed into foster care. At the time, she was 10, her middle sister was 8 and her youngest sister was 6. Photo courtesy of Natasha.

For the three sisters, that solution may have sounded better than facts on the ground would allow. They said soon after moving back in with their parents on March 25, things went downhill. Family disagreements — exacerbated by household stress after both parents lost their jobs — had made staying together too hard, and “unhealthy habits” returned, Natasha said. 

By that time, the middle sister’s former foster mother announced she was no longer welcome to return to her house, she said, because of a long-simmering disagreement over curfew. As a result, her family feared that she would end up in a transitional shelter for foster youth as she had in the past. Beyond the risk of getting infected or assaulted at a shelter, the middle sister worried she would be sent far from her sisters and other family members. 

“Now, I might get moved one hour away, two hours away, who knows. Last time they kicked me out, they didn’t have a place for me, so they put me in a shelter,” the 15-year-old said. “It’s scary that I don’t have anywhere else to go.”

So on April 10, just two weeks after moving back in with their parents, the sisters called their brother. They needed their 25-year-old brother — living in Sacramento after being furloughed from his job — to come get them. 

“We’re in limbo,” Natasha said. “And I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to get back.”

Hospitals, a Placement of Last Resort

“Placement instability,” is a dry term for what all too many children in foster care experience: being wrenched from their homes, receiving “14-day notices” akin to an eviction letter for kids, and shacking up abruptly with strangers and in group facilities where clothes are pulled from communal bins and caregiving staff work in shifts. 

Last month, California’s Department of Social Services reminded county child welfare agencies that foster children should shelter in place with families or in congregate care. If foster youth exhibit coronavirus symptoms, caregivers or facility staff are supposed to provide them with a safe space to quarantine for two weeks.

So far, according to Los Angeles County officials, only 10 foster youth have tested positive for the coronavirus in L.A., though it is possible there may be more. Until last week, testing was limited to only those people with symptoms, often administered at a hospital. Many people with mild symptoms haven’t been tested at all, and instead have been sent to isolate at home for two weeks.

At least 680 youth from birth to 18 have been infected by the coronavirus in L.A. County, but foster youth have been represented in those ranks at a higher rate than the percentage of foster youth in the general population, though numbers of how many children have been infected are difficult to come by due to a lack of widespread testing. While a recent study from China suggests that children are much less likely to become seriously ill with COVID-19 compared with adults, six children have died of the coronavirus in New York City and at least one youth in L.A. County.

County officials said four foster youth — who were not sick enough to need hospitalization but had nowhere else to ride out quarantine — were placed at the L.A. County-USC Medical Center. A physician there described the hospital as a “placement of last resort” for infected foster children with nowhere else to go.

Shannon Thyne, head of pediatrics for the county Department of Health Services, said one of the four infected foster youth who ended up at the hospital had left one placement because his caregiver became too sick to take care of him. Then, the child’s social worker drove him two hours to another foster home. But after they arrived, the foster mother had second thoughts about taking in the boy, who had mild symptoms of coronavirus. 

A newly established phone line allows foster youth, caregivers and social workers to reach medical personnel at the L.A. County-USC Medical Center to figure out a plan in situations such as this. And after the boy’s caseworker called the number, she brought him to the hospital, where he was held in quarantine for 24 hours until an emergency placement could be found. The child welfare agency plans to keep him at that home until his caregiver returns to health, Thyne said.

Last month, The Imprint reported that two L.A. County foster youths and three youths from other counties became infected with coronavirus at the Star View Youth Center, a locked psychiatric facility. All are isolating, and so far, none has experienced more than mild symptoms, the center reported.

Meanwhile, an agreement between the county’s Health Services Department and the Department of Children and Family Services allows the child welfare agency to temporarily place foster youth in four beds at three county hospitals. While placed at a hospital, the children are tested and quarantined if the results are positive, while an emergency placement is found.

To date, more than 26,000 people have contracted the coronavirus in L.A. County, about half of all COVID-19 cases in the state. With such high rates of infection, a system of care that is heavily reliant on elderly relatives and professional foster parents with underlying health risks has forced officials to make painful decisions to put children out for their own safety. 

Still, Dr. Jorge Fuentes, the medical director for foster youth programs at the L.A. County-USC Medical Center, said that a hospital is a far-from-ideal setting for those who do not truly need high-level medical intervention. 

Fuentes said a negative test has provided the reassurance that some foster care providers need. 

But for the others: “Where do these kids go?” he said. “Our preference is to find a relative, or if they are in congregate care, see if there is a way to accommodate the requirements to complete their quarantine in those settings, rather than a hospital.”

 DCFS said it has identified 15 to 20 foster parents in the county who have said they are willing to take in foster children who are infected with the coronavirus. Thanks to a temporary state order through the end of June, the county can pay these parents $2,609 a month, an amount usually reserved for children with the most intensive mental health needs short of placement in an institution. 

For those children placed in group facilities, home could soon become a trailer if the coronavirus pandemic spreads in residential treatment facilities. DCFS has rented at least 10 mobile units to ensure that residential treatment facilities have “adequate isolation resources” for foster youth who become exposed or test positive for the coronavirus. That “will allow the agency to continue to provide care and supervision, minimizing the trauma youth may be experiencing,” according to a statement from DCFS public information officer Juana Aguilera.

A Particular Strain on Foster Families

Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic is putting an exceptional strain on relatives and foster parents caring for other people’s children. With schools closed and many services unavailable, caregivers are now spending all day at home with children, acting as educators one moment and mental health providers the next. Moments of respite for caregivers working 24/7 to care for traumatized children stuck inside all day are rare if they happen at all.

“How do you balance loving and caring for that child in your home while keeping everyone in the house safe at the same time?” said Susanna Kniffen senior director of child welfare at Oakland-based Children Now. Trauma experienced by youth in foster care is often compounded by the stress and anxiety brought on by the pandemic and the disruptions of familiar routines, she said.

Kniffen would like to see the state speed up the January timetable for a crisis hotline and mobile clinical teams to address disagreements between caregivers and foster youth before “tense situations” escalate that can lead to yet another move for foster youth.

“Caregivers are telling us they need to be able to call somewhere and get a human being to talk to about what’s going on in their home,” she said.

Undoubtedly, these are rough times for foster youth as well.

Nineteen-year-old Sacramento foster youth Angel, who agreed to be identified by her middle name only, said she is among those scrambling to find a place to stay during the pandemic. Angel said her guardian of three years, fearful of contagion, told her she had to leave because she had been going in and out of the house to run errands. 

Since leaving that home, Angel said she is finding shelter wherever she can. The community college student said she has had to put her studies on hold. It has been too difficult to keep up with her classes, especially since a regular Wi-Fi connection is no longer a guarantee. Angel is hoping to move into a more permanent housing earmarked for young adults in extended foster care, but bureaucratic challenges like the verification of her foster care status are too difficult to manage right now.

“Since the lockdown happened I’ve been spending my days on different peoples’ couches, different peoples’ floors, whatever I can find,” Angel said. “It’s just overwhelming right now.” 

Long-Lasting Impact of Instability

Well before COVID-19 struck, nearly one-third of all California foster youth who have spent at least one year in foster care cycled through three or more placements during their time in care, according to data compiled by the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health.

A 2018 Children and Youth Services Review study found that every time a foster youth has to switch schools as a result of a placement change, their academic performance suffers: reading scores drop by 3.7 percentile points, math falls by 3.5 points and writing sees a decline of 3.0 points.

During the pandemic, the three sisters have tried to keep up on their studies remotely as much as possible, much like the rest of the nation’s students. Photo courtesy of Natasha.

School isn’t the only area where placement changes can leave a lasting mark. A much-cited Pediatrics study found that foster children who had a history of being tossed from one placement to the next are between 36% and 63% more likely to develop more serious mental health and behavioral issues. 

Vanessa Hernandez, deputy director of the California Youth Connection, said many fear that in just weeks, the pandemic has disrupted years of efforts by advocates to create more stable childhoods for foster youth. In 2018, Hernandez and her colleagues helped pass a law that requires child welfare agencies to create “placement preservation strategies” before foster youth are handed the bulletin they know all too well: the dreaded 14-day notice that results in yet another move. Counties aren’t always employing placement preservation strategies and meetings with youth and families during the coronavirus pandemic, she said.  

“It will have impacts way beyond this moment in time — maybe lifelong,” Hernandez said. “We have to think long term to really understand the impact.” 

Without a Test, Slim Hope for a Quick Return

Back in Sacramento, this week the three sisters are still holed up in their brother’s apartment, hoping for the best. Natasha, 18, faithfully logs into classes at her L.A.-area high school every morning, prepping for three Advanced Placement tests. She’s been accepted into California State University, Long Beach for the fall. 

She said she is grateful to her brother for taking his siblings in. But she misses her foster home of the past three years — by far the longest stable home she has known in her nine years of foster care. During that time, the system moved her seven times.

“Growing up in the foster care system, you learn how to adapt to all sorts of situations when you get bounced around,” she said matter-of-factly.

Studying on borrowed computers and phones, all four siblings have tried in recent weeks to make the best of a bad situation. Last week, after making popcorn and moving furniture around, they sat together on the floor and watched the movie “Sucker Punch,which her brother projected on a living room wall.

But Natasha remains worried about what will happen to her sisters without a stable home. L.A. County’s Department of Children and Family Services has told them that the two sisters must receive a negative coronavirus test before they can return to the foster family agency home in Los Angeles. There are signs that some parts of the state, including L.A. County, are starting to roll out coronavirus testing. 

Natasha said that the department has set up a meeting Friday for the sisters with social workers and family members later this week to sort out their predicament. But in the meantime, she’s been told the bed at her foster home will be given away. On April 17, L.A. County served Natasha and her youngest sister with a 14-day notice. Her middle sister is without options and hopes that she will make it back home, close to three other siblings and her parents.

“We’re at our most vulnerable right now,” Natasha said, noting that requiring a coronavirus-free test feels like yet another insurmountable obstacle. “That’s just punishing us for something we can’t control.”

 Sara Tiano contributed to this report.

Jeremy Loudenback can be reached at jeremyloudenback@chronicleofsocialchange.org

This story was produced as part of a project for the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2020 California Fellowship.

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