Foster care advocates looking for more foster families as COVID-19 crisis creates new challenges

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As the COVID-19 crisis continues, it’s creating challenges for the child protection system in Minnesota. There are more than 15,000 children in foster care across the state.

“We still anticipate there will be increasing numbers of children coming into foster care as a result of the number of stressors on families during this time,” said Jill Smith, the program director for foster care at Bethany Christian Services.

The organization has offices across the country, including in Plymouth and Willmar.

“It just adds more and more challenges to families who are potentially already stretched and feeling a lack of support already,” said Smith. “That’s just going to lead to increased challenges with substance abuse, mental health issues, domestic violence that may put kids at risk.”

She said there are also new barriers for families who are seeking reunification, with visits and court dates now being done remotely.

There is a growing need for foster families, as well, she said.

“We have, unfortunately, families who perhaps because of underlying health conditions or their age puts them at higher risk,” said Smith. “Or, perhaps they have job situations that have put them in a situation where they’re unable to foster.”

More than 6,000 children went into foster care in the last year in Minnesota, according to Smith.

“There is such a great need,” she said. “Teens, in particular, and sibling groups of at least two or more, but particularly three or more, are more challenge to find foster homes for so anyone interested in serving those two groups are especially needed in Minnesota.”

A year-and-a-half ago, Kara Ring and her family opened their Waseca home to two brothers.

“Being able to help kids who are coming from difficult situations, being able to watch them open up and feel safe is so rewarding,” said Ring. “I would highly encourage anyone who feels like they would be able to do so, to considerate it.”

She and her husband have been fostering for years, providing a temporary home to 10 children, so far.

The COVID-19 crisis is creating new challenges.

“We know that for kids, routine, consistency and structure feel safe and enable us to be our best,” said Ring. “All of that has been disrupted for these boys right now.”

The brothers used to go to about 40 hours of therapy every week.

“Which all had to be canceled, so they are trying to receive some of the therapy in our home,” said Ring. “It is very confusing and very challenging for them.”

The boys are also getting ready to move into their forever home. Normally, Ring said there would be several face-to-face visits and overnight stays with the adoptive family to help the children transition.

“The challenge of coordinating when they can move has been very much complicated by not being able to do face-to-face visits,” she said.

As they prepare to say goodbye to these brothers, Ring is urging other families to consider fostering children.

“In order to be successful, what you do need is to be patient, self-controlled and to have a willingness to open your home to kids who are going through a difficult time, realizing that the ability and opportunity to share your love with them is more important than the difficulty of saying goodbye,” she said.

For more information about fostering through Bethany Christian Services, click here.

At Children’s Home Society of Minnesota, President Alexis Oberdorfer is also looking for additional foster families.

“Right now, there are more than 15,000 children in foster care and there are an additional 905 kids who are legally free and need an adoptive home,” said Oberdorfer. “In the State of Minnesota, we do have some disproportionality, particularly in terms of the Native American populations and African American populations, we'd love to see people step forward from those communities.”

She said they’re also looking for families to support LGBTQ children.

In January, the state released a report showing the number of children entering foster care decreased in 2018, for the first time in years.

“We don't know what the results will be from COVID-19, will that stay flat?” said Oberdorfer. “We don’t know if family situations are getting difficult, if there are job losses, if there are other stresses, how that impacts mental health, how that impacts potential drug use for parents and if we’ll need to see addition responses for kids coming into care.”

Oberdorfer said they are working to continue transitioning children into permanent homes, despite the crisis. They have started using video conferencing for meetings between the adoptive family and foster family, therapists and teachers.

“We’re doing everything, we are doing everything we can to pivot, to use videoconferencing and teleconferencing to replace what we would typically do in-person visits,” she said.

If the visit must be done in-person, team members wear personal protective equipment, like masks and gloves.

For more information about adoption and fostering options through Children's Home Society of Minnesota, click here.

The Minnesota Department of Human Services is also adapting to the crisis, releasing the following statement:

"Preliminary data indicates there has been about a 33% reduction in the average number of children entering care each week since Minnesota’s governor issued the executive order closing schools compared to the first 11 weeks of 2020. This follows a similar decrease in the number of reports received during those same time periods. Many of the reports of maltreatment received by the department come from mandated reporters (approximately 80% in 2019) and we know children are now not seeing many of those mandated reporters either in school or for routine medical care.

"The department is deeply concerned about the impact of COVID-19 on children and families across Minnesota. The COVID-19 pandemic, and the measures being taken to address it, are certainly creating stressful conditions for many families. Social isolation, unemployment and other economic stressors, as well as the general strain posed by the physical risks associated with this pandemic are all risks generally associated with increased rates of maltreatment. The department is working with counties and tribes to support them in doing outreach to families known to our child welfare system already. In addition, the state is working to support families in addressing the economic pressures they are facing as a result of COVID-19."
DHS continued, saying all Minnesotans have a role to play to prevent child abuse and neglect. The state agency provided these resources: