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Court Backlogs During The Pandemic Meant Kids Stayed Longer in Foster Care

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Over the past year, we've seen how different systems in the U.S. have failed to adapt to the challenges created by the pandemic. And today we wanted to focus on the foster care system. The pandemic has led to backlogs in the courts and fewer in-person parent visits, which has meant that children are left in foster care for much longer than they would have been pre-pandemic. Julia Lurie is a senior reporter at Mother Jones, who has been covering this story. She joins us now.

Welcome.

JULIA LURIE: Thank you so much for having me.

CHANG: Well, before we get into the problems that the pandemic caused in the foster care system, can you just tell us generally about what kinds of families end up in the foster care system? Like, what are the circumstances that usually get them there?

LURIE: So there are about 400,000 kids in foster care at any given time. And, you know, I think a lot of people associate foster care and the child welfare system with parents who have been physically abusive or violent towards their kids. And in reality, the vast majority of cases are triggered by something called neglect, which is a catchall category of offenses that are often caused by poverty and addiction.

CHANG: Well, your reporting found that the pandemic set in motion a cascading set of circumstances that disrupted the foster care systems in a lot of cities and counties. One of the earliest things to happen is that a lot of courts simply shut down. And can you just tell us what domino effect flowed from that?

LURIE: So in a typical year, a little more than half of the kids in foster care return to the permanent care of their biological parents. And that process is known as reunification. And experts agree that reunification is by far the best outcome, provided that, you know, parents can prove to be safe caregivers. And the pandemic hindered basically every stage of that reunification process. So you had courts slow down. You had visits between parents and their kids go virtual. And then the services that parents need to complete in order to move through their case, like parenting classes or addiction treatment, became a lot harder to access.

CHANG: Can you talk about how this process normally works and how it changed because of the pandemic?

LURIE: Over the course of a child welfare case, family visits typically progress from meetings that are overseen by a CPS-approved monitor to unsupervised overnights and weekends. And the visits really build on one another, so each one is a potential opportunity for parents to show caseworkers and, ultimately, the judge that they're ready for more time with their children and they're ready for more independence. But the pandemic took those visits virtual. And in a lot of places, parents and kids went months without seeing each other in person, so that's obviously incredibly challenging for moving their cases forward. But also just in the moment, it's incredibly challenging for the families.

CHANG: Yeah. And the less they're able to bond, the less chance there is of reunification, right?

LURIE: Exactly, so it's a process that really feeds on itself.

CHANG: Is there a particular story that that has stayed with you that you want to share about a family or a child that has just been on your mind since you've done this reporting?

LURIE: Yeah. So over the course of several months, I was in touch with Stevie (ph), who's a mom in Baltimore. And, you know, in a typical scenario, this family probably would have been reunited within a few weeks or months. As it ended up playing out because of the slowdowns to the system, Stevie didn't see her kids in person for four months, and she didn't start getting regular visits with them for six or seven months. And Stevie - you know, her son had just been born, and so she just didn't get that critical period of infancy with him. She felt like she didn't know him, and he didn't know her. That family, happily now, has since been reunited. Stevie and her husband were able to get help. They have been off of drugs for a while now. And that family, like many now, is going to sort of have to see what the effect of this pandemic and that prolonged separation is going to mean for their relationship going forward. And we just - we don't know quite yet.

CHANG: Julia Lurie is a senior reporter at Mother Jones.

Thank you very much for your reporting.

LURIE: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.