Across the nation, parents have been wrestling with choices about their children returning to school during a global pandemic. There are no easy answers or one-size fits all options.
Each choice feels fraught with dilemmas. For children in foster care, it is even more complicated because making decisions involves many people: birth families, caseworkers, foster and kinship families, court appointed advocates, guardians ad litem, judges and more. The decision-making process for these children can be cumbersome even in the best of times. During these difficult times, we must listen to the needs of children and their caregivers to ensure they have what they need to thrive in their education and beyond.
Child welfare agencies across the country are approaching the decision of how children in foster care will attend school in many different ways. Some have made one decision – in-person or virtual learning – for all children in care unless a family requests an exception. In other jurisdictions, a team decision-making approach is being utilized, similar to processes used for case planning. Still other jurisdictions may choose to leave the decision up to the caregiver, guardian ad litem or court.
As many school districts scramble to provide options and set deadlines for parents to make choices, there is unfortunately little time available for measured decision-making processes. Convening all parties – for every child in foster care – is not feasible. Fall is here and schooling decisions must be made in short order.
The reality is that this decision will most impact the caregivers and the children they are caring for. It is the caregivers who must manage the risks associated with any choice, be it risk of exposure to COVID-19 or risk of losing income to provide schooling support at home. And it is the child who will endure the consequences of either choice, be it illness, lost educational attainment, the trauma of social separation, or struggles with learning.
In my daily conversations with foster families and kinship caregivers, I hear these concerns raised repeatedly.
Yet in too many communities, foster parents are not at the table. Foster and kinship caregivers often report that they are left out of decision-making involving the children in their homes, leaving them feeling frustrated and under-valued. This wasn’t ideal before the pandemic, but today much more is at stake. And when faced with decisions they may not support, caregivers have another option. They can choose to have children removed from their homes and stop fostering.
This happened at high rates prior to COVID-19 due to frustrations with the system. In the midst of a global pandemic and its economic and health impacts, many caregivers are reporting that they may have to take this drastic measure if they cannot be part of this important decision. These families don’t make this choice lightly: they know a placement disruption can ultimately be worse for a child than the consequences of either schooling decision. But if they are elderly or have an underlying condition, or if they are an essential or hourly wage worker, and decisions are made without their input, they may be left with no choice.
That is why, in the end, the caregiver’s and child’s needs and wishes must be given the most weight in any schooling decision. Caregivers entrusted with caring for children in foster care are screened, trained and monitored. They should be entrusted with the final schooling decision as well, in order to meet the needs of the child in their home and avoid disruption. Whenever possible, the birth families should also be involved so that an arrangement can be made that supports continued visitation and safety for their family. Ideally, the child welfare agency has supported the foster and birth parents in building a relationship and the two families can work together to arrive at a decision with which they are both comfortable.
School systems must also be flexible with families involved in the child welfare system. Decisions made now must be adjusted when circumstances change for the child. For example, if a foster family chooses virtual schooling because someone in the home is at high risk of getting COVID-19, and part way through the semester a child reunifies with a birth parent who needs to work, new choices must be available.
Lastly, supports including testing, protective gear, technology and behavioral supports must be provided to all families regardless of the schooling option they chose. These supports should be available for families to access as needed, not forced on them by well-meaning systems not familiar with the individual situation and needs.
Decision-making within child welfare systems is always challenging, and a global pandemic only magnifies those challenges. But these unprecedented times also provide an opportunity. We can use this time to ensure that foster and kinship families are involved in decision making as partners – now and in the future. We can also work to build and support relationships between foster, kin and birth families so they are able to make decisions together, as co-parents. And we can elevate and value the important role that foster and kinship caregivers play in the lives of children and youth by supporting families so they can thrive.