Aiming for Normalcy in Abnormal Times: How to Help Children in Foster Care

By Mary Elizabeth Collins and Sarah Baldiga

Photo by Charlein Gracia on Unsplash.

Think about how much your daily routines have been upended: your work, your home life, how you stay in touch with friends and family.

Now picture going through all that without the stability of a permanent home.

For many young people in our foster care system, the coronavirus pandemic threatens to shatter an already-shaky sense of normalcy that’s crucial for their growth and development. As we navigate our own new norms, each of us can help make sure these vulnerable youth aren’t forgotten in the chaos of crisis.

Losing routine, stability and normalcy — core ingredients for lifelong resilience — can be especially damaging to youth in foster care. Their short lives have already seen a piling-on of challenges, from family separation to instability in temporary home placements. Even in better times, they endure stigma when they can’t easily join the extracurricular, social and cultural activities that other youngsters enjoy.

And now? Imagine, for example: Siblings torn apart by placement in different foster homes now cannot visit, a routine that was a weekly highlight. An older youth who bounced around several homes had been doing well in his current placement, partly because his foster family encouraged physical activity. The closure of gyms and parks is disrupting his progress. In a cash-strapped home with several children, including some in foster care, keeping up with schoolwork is a tall order if there’s just one laptop.

These lifestyle changes are more than disappointments; they can be devastating to emotional, social and educational development. When a child is in foster care, the need for normalcy is so important that it’s reflected in federal law: State welfare authorities must provide normalcy for children in foster care.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash.

Having access to a wide variety of “normal” activities for young people promotes development, eases feelings of stigma and leaves youth emotionally and socially stronger. Typically, normalcy means letting kids in foster care placements participate in age-appropriate social, educational and enrichment activities — fundamentally, to have some parts of their lives mirror those of other kids.

Achieving normalcy in these times requires a bit more creativity. As we meet the new demands of social distancing, we’ll need novel measures to meet the moment. Specifically, here’s what we can do:

  • Enable normal activities: The Rise Above Foundation in Massachusetts can serve as a model, having provided opportunities and experiences for children and youth in care such as money for prom dresses, soccer registration and music lessons. They’ve provided resources that can be used at home such as computers, puzzles and bicycles. Other organizations and informal community collectives can replicate this approach.
  • Support foster parents: Like all parents, foster parents are feeling the strain of supervising, educating and entertaining children in their homes 24/7. Both agencies and community networks must reach out to them with offers of support so that they, in turn, can be effective supports to the children in their homes. In a productive policy development, Gov. Charlie Baker announced this spring that additional financial resources ($100 per child, per month) will be provided for children in foster care to address additional costs of care arising from the COVID-19 crisis.
  • Support the work of child welfare agencies: Child-welfare workers are facing long, hard hours to ensure child safety, find permanent homes for children, and promote well-being. This is essential work. Workers remain in contact, sometimes by video, with children and foster parents. Some governors, such as New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, have already issued executive orders that would grant additional resources to the child protection system to account for the extra efforts. Other governors and state legislatures should follow suit to aggressively increase the amount of resources.
  • Plan for the mid- and long-term: Reports to child abuse hotlines have declined, primarily because school personnel and other professionals outside the family are often those who witness the signs of maltreatment. But the stress of economic insecurity and enforced isolation may contribute to more maltreatment now and in the future. As we respond, we must balance child protection with promoting well-being. This requires a laser focus on normalcy for kids in foster care. A commitment to normalcy may lead to new ideas for reforming the entire child welfare system.
Photo by Santi Vedrí on Unsplash.

Each of us can contribute. Donate resources to organizations that support children in care. Organize activities that are inclusive of youth in foster care. Contact legislators to remind them to keep these young people at the forefront of public health, educational and economic recovery efforts.

All of us are feeling the strain. Children and youth in foster care merit a high level of attention. Think of their situation the next time you are feeling bored, lonely or anxious. Find a way to use your resources to make life more normal for them.

For additional commentary by Boston University experts, follow us on Twitter at @BUexperts. Mary Elizabeth Collins, A.M., Ph.D., is a professor and department chair of Social Welfare Policy at the Boston University School of Social Work. Follow the BU School of Social work at @BUSSW. Sarah Baldiga is co-founder and executive director of Rise Above Foundation, a non-profit organization whose mission is to provide Massachusetts children in foster care with enriching activities, opportunities and experiences. Follow the foundation at @riseaboveMA.

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