After a long year of fear, loss and traumatic uncertainty, the availability of vaccines protecting against COVID-19 is a welcome, necessary relief. Health care workers, teachers and the elderly have been rightly prioritized for access, but many vulnerable people are still waiting for eligibility. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s announcement that workers in nonprofit and government sectors who have public-facing roles are now eligible should be applauded, but we are dismayed that another group of essential workers is still excluded from the list: foster parents.
Foster parents and children in care in New York City are more likely to be people of color. Black and brown New Yorkers have been impacted by COVID more heavily than their neighbors. They are at higher risk of contracting the virus and have significantly higher hospitalization and mortality rates. Black and brown New Yorkers are also less likely to be vaccinated.
Foster parents are essential workers — a fact the governor has not yet acknowledged. Despite the many administrative and fiscal challenges of fostering, these heroes open their homes to children and teens who need a safe and supportive place to live. Without foster parents, thousands of children would have nowhere to call home. But unlike other essential workers, foster parents do not yet qualify for the COVID-19 vaccine, even though they “provide public-facing services to New Yorkers in need,” as stated so compellingly in Cuomo’s announcement on March 9.
Their role and responsibilities make foster parents, many of whom are related to the children in their care, uniquely vulnerable to COVID-19. Foster parents can be asked at a moment’s notice to assume care of children who need a safe and stable place to stay. By accepting a child into their home, foster parents are taking on the real risk that they will be accepting COVID-19 as well.
Once a child is in the care of a foster parent, they are responsible for shepherding the children in their care to and from school or to one of many required appointments with their doctor or caseworker. Children attend frequent visits with their families of origin for a few hours or a whole weekend, which are critical for successful reunification and discharge from care. These outings, appointments and visits are all mandatory, yet each poses a risk of exposure to COVID-19, no matter how careful all parties may be.
There are around 11,000 foster homes in New York, providing invaluable service to the state and to our future. Adding foster parents to the pool of eligible individuals would not carve out a significant number of doses from vaccines currently available but would have a dramatic impact on the health and safety of foster parents’ households, communities and all those who depend on their vital services. It is past time to add them to the list. What could be more “public-facing” than opening your home to a child in need?