The coronavirus pandemic coincided with major drops in foster care exits, reunifications and adoptions last year, according to an Associated Press analysis of child welfare records from 34 states.
The global news cooperative’s analysis discovered that reunifications between parent and foster child fell by at least 8,700 between March and December of 2020, compared with the same period the year prior.
That 16% drop was echoed by a 23% decrease in adoptions in the analyzed states. All told, at least 22,600 fewer children left the foster care system last year than in 2019.
Experts said the drop-offs are almost entirely due to the pandemic’s interruption of court schedules, as hearings went virtual or court administrators simply shut down in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. In addition, other critical services fell by the wayside or were delayed.
Frank Ordway, chief of staff at Washington’s child welfare agency, blamed the court closures for the decline in reunifications in his state.
“When those systems aren’t working, those families and those children are left in limbo,” Ordway said.
Research shows that the less time children are separated from their birth parents, the better, and a key goal of the system is to reunify them or place them for adoption as quickly as possible. The social toll wrought by the pandemic-snarled system means vulnerable families suffered potentially permanent damage in the form of weakened family ties, AP reported.