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Child Welfare Services And Caretakers Grapple With COVID-19 Effects

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So social distancing and testing are key to slowing the spread of coronavirus. But isolation can be devastating when it comes to child welfare. In some cases, social workers are virtually visiting homes, and parents with kids in foster care are having to connect with them via FaceTime. We have more from NPR's Leila Fadel.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: On Mondays and Tuesdays, Jessica's daughter, who is in foster care, is supposed to stay overnight with her in Brooklyn.

JESSICA: Now I have to just only do FaceTime, video conferences, three-way calls, you know. I can't see her anymore for now.

FADEL: Jessica says her toddler doesn't understand FaceTime.

JESSICA: She basically hangs up the phone. So it's like, very emotional for me to try to do Facetime when she's not really paying attention. I'm usually, like, you know, feeding her, singing to her, playing with her, we're bonding really good, and it's like it snatched it away from me, this whole virus and being away from her now.

FADEL: Jessica asks that we only use her first name because of her pending legal cases. She has no idea when she'll be able to see her daughter again. Her lawyer says Jessica is not alone.

ANYA MUKARJI-CONNOLLY: One of our biggest concerns is the slowdown in family court. So there are families where children are in foster care that won't have their cases heard for some time now.

FADEL: That's Anya Mukarji-Connolly, a supervising attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services. Because of coronavirus, the family court in New York City is only hearing cases deemed emergencies or essential. Right now, New York City's Administration for Children's Services is continuing to fully operate. A spokesperson says they're putting protocols in place to help frontline workers do their jobs safely. But some individual foster agencies are stopping visitations.

MUKARJI-CONNOLLY: We know that it's going to be terrible. You know, not having access to services, not having access to visitation is certainly going to be harmful, you know, to the families but also, we anticipate, will delay reunification.

FADEL: Especially in this time of panic, Mukarji-Connolly says that disruption can cause incredible anguish for child and parent.

Elsewhere, Maine is making drastic decisions. It's temporarily suspending all in-person parental visitations and stopping visits by caseworkers to foster homes. But Los Angeles, which runs the largest county child welfare system in the country, is continuing the necessary in-person work as safely as possible.

BOBBY CAGLE: At this point in time, our staff are being equipped with the necessary protective equipment to be able to do home visits, especially in cases where we screen ahead of time and find that there is an illness of any type in the household.

FADEL: That's the director of LA County's Department of Children and Family Services, Bobby Cagle. He says calls to the county hotline have actually dropped in the midst of this pandemic because those calls usually come from schools, and schools are closed. So Cagle says he needs the public to be vigilant and call if they see possible abuse.

CAGLE: This is a time of increased stress, and we know from the work that we do that this can also cause an uptick in maltreatment of children.

FADEL: The county has the equipment it needs right now and is fully staffed. But this is just the beginning of the pandemic. Cagle says studies show that long-term staff could reduce by up to 40% as people fall ill, have to take care of sick family members or stay home with their kids. At some point, they might have to make tough choices about whether to intervene.

CAGLE: Taking the most risky ones first. Thankfully, we are not there at this point.

FADEL: Right now, they're adapting by the hour.

Leila Fadel, NPR News, Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.