Home has taken on new meaning the past few weeks. We stay home to protect the broader community. We’re working from home. Having birthdays at home. And for many, a stable place to call home might be something we take for granted.
But for children in foster care who are waiting for permanent, loving homes, the COVID-19 crisis has brought more uncertainty and instability. As an adoption professional, I see the impact the current environment is having on children waiting in foster care. While our communities and leaders look for ways to support those most vulnerable in this crisis, it is critical that our children in foster care remain in focus.
Children in foster care are particularly vulnerable to the negative health and social impacts of the coronavirus. Due to trauma and the ever-present stress it causes, these children experience higher rates of acute health conditions than the general population, making them more at risk for contracting the virus. Those living in institutional or congregate care settings might also be at an increased risk of becoming infected.
Children in foster care might also be particularly affected by the isolation of social distancing. They often have less dependable access to technology to connect with friends or family and might move from place to place as foster families manage illness and financial uncertainty. For all these reasons, the current environment is a trigger for the trauma, stress and anxiety that many of these children have experienced in their short lives.
In my role with Wendy’s Wonderful Kids, a program of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, I have served children at the highest risk of aging out of foster care without an adoptive family. This includes teenagers, children with special needs and siblings. I meet with them regularly to hear about their lives and make sure they know someone is in their corner. We play games, go for a walk, work on their homework or just talk about what’s on their mind. And most importantly, I work to find them safe permanent homes.
There are already more than 125,000 children in foster care waiting to be adopted across the United States. Last year, nearly 20,000 older teens aged out of the system with nowhere to go — putting them at significantly increased risk for homelessness, unemployment, having children before they’re ready and continuing the cycles that placed them in foster care in the first place. I fear these numbers might go up if fewer families agree to foster or adopt in this environment.
The uncertainty of this time takes an emotional toll and brings back memories of their loss and trauma and increases feelings of loneliness and not being wanted. They worry about the health and safety of their birth families, and misinformation about the virus adds to their fears.
With in-person meetings on hold, video conferencing tools and other technology that allows me to connect with children and prospective families have become essential. These touch points are especially critical now to help lift their spirits and ensure that we can continue working diligently to keep the placement process moving forward. For some children, communicating virtually has been an easier transition. But for others, including children with special needs, not being able to meet in person has been much harder. Through this all, though, my colleagues and I are committed to finding creative ways to remind young people we serve that someone is here for them.
The urgent need to find permanent homes for our children and youth in foster care is more important than ever. We also need people to stay committed to opening their homes as foster or adoptive parents.
Adoption professionals, online resources and support networks are available to prepare prospective parents and help them begin the journey to providing a safe, loving home. In these difficult times, we simply cannot forget about the children who need our help the most.
Jennifer Vickers is a Wendy’s Wonderful Kids adoption recruiter in northwest Ohio.