Wendy Aldana is a foster mother to three teenagers and three children under the age of 7. Her Bakersfield, Calif., home thrives on structure. She believes in it firmly, especially for children who may suffer from stress and anxiety. In her kitchen, she has a large bulletin board with a daily schedule and a list of rotating household tasks.
Aldana’s 15 years of experience as a preschool teacher have taught her how to work with young people, and she loves being a foster mother. But she was unprepared for the intensity of life with six foster children during the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s been the worst challenge I’ve ever had to face,” she said. Because of social distancing guidelines, the children are not getting the same care they normally do. Her foster children, like many others, rely on a team of adults — therapists, social workers and others — who visit regularly. Those visits have become virtual.
“I am not just mom. I now have to do the work of the therapist. I have to do the work of the social worker and supervise conversations with siblings and parents,” she said.
Supervising conversations with parents, a task that would normally fall to the social worker, can be particularly difficult, she said.
“If the parent says something inappropriate or the conversation is leading in a direction it shouldn’t, I have to end the video chat,” said Aldana. “And then I have a reaction from the kid, and they hold it against me.”
The agency Aldana works with, Foster Children Safe Haven in Bakersfield, has also banned her and other foster parents from taking children outside of the home because of fears of exposure to the virus.
“It was so sad, the response when I asked,” she said. “I understand what is happening but walking around the neighborhood, not touching anyone, would be good for them.”
The challenges Aldana faces with her foster kids are ones that foster parents across the United States are facing, as much of America remains under shelter-in-place orders because of the pandemic.
There are more than 400,000 American children in the foster care system, based on data from the United States Department of Health and Human Services. Each year, more than 200,000 children enter the system. These kids are among our nation’s most vulnerable: 62 percent were removed from their original homes because of neglect, 36 percent lived in homes where a parent was a drug user, and 13 percent suffered from physical abuse.
“Foster parents right now are really crying out for help,” said John DeGarmo, a foster care consultant and founder of the Foster Care Institute, which runs training programs for foster parents and care agencies nationwide. “Like most parents, they are asking questions like ‘Will I still have my job?’ and ‘Will there be toilet paper?’ but they are also dealing with children whose anxiety levels are through the roof.”
In addition to dealing with traumatic pasts, foster children tend to be behind academically and often have developmental delays, said DeGarmo, who has fostered more than 60 children. The special resources in counseling, math and reading the school system typically provides, now hindered by the pandemic, are critical for these children, he said. Foster families always rely on community support, but they need it more than ever now, he said. Some of the local agencies he works with are looking for adults to tutor kids virtually.
Stella Maggs, the director of ACH Child and Family Services, a nonprofit agency in Fort Worth, agreed that community support is particularly important now.
“Fundraising makes an impact and lets us put together packages and activities for children,” Maggs said. With children at home, the agency has increased efforts to collect in-kind gifts that might keep kids occupied, such as puzzles and games.
Foster parents who are feeling strained should contact their social workers and therapists, even though visits are virtual for now, Brenda McDonald, director of Washington, D.C.’s Child and Family Services Agency, said in an email. The city has more than 700 children and youth in foster care, and outreach is being done virtually.
“Through these check-ins, they’re keeping a pulse on both parental and child stress and giving suggestions on how to best manage any trauma symptoms that may be manifesting during this crisis,” McDonald said.
With younger children, the challenges can be different. Hayley DeRoche is concerned about the potential loss of connection between her foster son and his biological family, with whom he had regular in-person meetings until the pandemic halted visits.
DeRoche, who lives in Farmville, Va., has been doing her best to maintain the connection between her son and his family through Zoom. For a 3-year-old, that means keeping him from exiting the meeting by slapping the keyboard, she said.
His family was working toward regaining custody, but most courts are now closed, something DeRoche says is unfortunate.
“This is going to drag his case on into next year,” she said.
For Nathan Yungerberg, a first-time, single foster dad to a 9-month-old girl, the challenge has been in coming up with a schedule that works for him and the baby.
Until the pandemic, the Brooklyn-based photographer and playwright had a good routine. The baby went to day care, he did his work, then he picked her up in the evening and fed her, and she went to bed for the night. On the weekends, they went out for brunch and to the park.
“I was devastated when the day care closed,” he said.
He is also faced with the additional burden of managing simple tasks with a baby in New York, the epicenter of America’s pandemic. Yungerberg is not comfortable taking his daughter outside anymore because of crowds. In his neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, not enough people are wearing masks or following social distancing guidelines, he said.
The other day, he had to make a trip to the grocery store to buy formula. As a foster child, his daughter qualifies for WIC, a federally funded program that provides healthy foods to low-income pregnant women, mothers, children and infants. To use WIC funds, Yungerberg has to go to a store and make the purchase himself.
“I had to bring her and it was terrifying,” he said. “I wore a mask and had to keep sanitizing our hands.”
All things considered, he is happy to have a baby while in isolation. While his friends say what they miss most is physical contact with other humans, he gets hugs whenever he wants.
“I’ve been able to bond with her in a way I haven’t been before. We’ve really synchronized in a way that any parent or foster parent should be able to, and it feels really comfortable,” he said.
Ashlee Leonard, who is mother to two foster children and two biological children in Georgetown, Ky., agreed that while the circumstances are unfortunate, the increased family time has been a positive for her family.
Her husband is a firefighter, she is an investigator for the state, and they felt like they were busy all the time. Her two foster children are 9 and 10 and her biological children are 7 months and 2. The whole family goes on walks every day now, something they always wanted to do but never had time for.
“For the kids specifically, the family time has been healing,” she said. “Quarantine has forced us to have more family time and movie nights and game nights, things these kids never had before they came here.”
Sindya N. Bhanoo is a health and science writer in Austin.