The spread of COVID-19 among children in Texas’ long-term foster care system has been rampant, particularly in residential care facilities, and the pandemic has left more than five dozen kids without a bed to sleep in, a new report filed in federal court shows.
As of August 28, there was a 20% positivity rate of children in long-term foster care, compared to the state’s rate of 12% positivity, according to a weekly reporting by the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) of positive cases of youth in what’s known in Texas as “permanent managing conservatorship.” That status means a judge has assigned the child welfare agency or an individual to be a child’s legal guardian through adulthood. About 11,000 foster youth are under permanent managing conservatorship (PMC), based on the most recent state statistics.
By the end of August, 297 youth in long-term care had tested positive for COVID-19, out of a total of 1,325 tests. Earlier in August, 49% of that group tested positive positive, compared to a 19% state rate.
The climbing trend in positivity rates of these foster youth are nearly identical to the state’s overall rate, the report notes, “though the weekly positivity rate is significantly higher for PMC children than for all Texans tested.”
Of specific concern are the positivity rates inside congregate care settings like general residential care operations or residential treatment centers, which house 13 or more children. Because these places hold many residents, along with a number of staff coming in and out to service them, they are at particular risk for the spread of COVID-19. As of August 11, nearly two-thirds of group care facilities were operating with confirmed exposure to COVID-19.
And although the Texas Health and Human Services Commission doesn’t report specific outbreaks at residential treatment centers or other congregate care facilities, eight facilities reported to court monitors that 10% or more of the children in them had tested positive.
In a court hearing last week where U.S. District Judge Janis Jack held the state in contempt for failing to comply with court-ordered reforms, DFPS’ Jaime Masters called the numbers “concerning.” But despite the risk of spread in congregate settings, officials told court monitors in April that “the state has no plans to test all children in congregate care.”
The report also documents that 69 children were without a placement for at least one spell between the beginning of April and the end of July. The average length of time a child went without a placement was 4.6 days, but one child went 30 days without a placement. All of these children were teens, and many had “barriers to placement” including a history of aggression or self-harm, or at least one stay in a psychiatric facility.
When children were without a placement, they’d often end up staying in Child Protective Services offices, churches, or “what appear to be foster care facilities,” the report states.
Julie White-Davis, a vice president at the Texas Foster Care Association, a foster parent advocacy group, said teens, who already struggle to find foster parents willing to take them in, have been the most impacted by the changes in protocol due to the pandemic, and the fear that has resulted from it.
“I haven’t seen COVID be an impact or deterrent for a younger kid [getting placed], it’s just made it even more difficult for older kids,” White-Davis said. “The only time I’ve seen anyone turn down a kiddo based on that concern is for teens — and they’re hard to place anyway.”
Youth in long-term care have also run into education barriers as the pandemic continues to change Texas school districts’ plans for reopening and distance learning. DFPS surveyed nearly 5,700 caregivers about remote learning. Nearly all the caregivers surveyed reported having access to the internet, but just 63% said foster children in their care were getting virtual instruction. More than 20% said children in their care were getting “paper-only” instruction.
“Some who responded to the survey commented that the school was simply providing homework packets for children to complete, with the school or teacher dropping the packets off and picking up the completed work on a weekly basis,” the report stated.
With school situations fluctuating and many in-person services for foster children going virtual or getting canceled, White-Davis said many foster children are without needed support during an already difficult time.
“Resources and support are really key and pivotal and they’re really hard right now virtually,” she said. “It’s really stressful.”