Need for foster parents increases during pandemic

Foster children and social workers in Eau Claire County feel the effects

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Kim Schlais, a foster care coordinator for Eau Claire County Department of Human Services, leads a foster parent informational meeting over Zoom. © 2020 Ta’Leah Van Sistine

With her final PowerPoint slide still up on the Zoom call’s screen, Kim Schlais concluded the last foster parent informational meeting of 2020.

All of the participants had their microphones muted and videos turned off for the Zoom call that, before the COVID-19 pandemic, would have been an in-person meeting.

After answering questions and providing everyone with her contact information, Schlais, a foster care coordinator for Eau Claire County Department of Human Services, made a final pitch.

“We need new foster parents all the time,” Schlais reminded everyone, “not just when we’re in a pandemic.”

Local social workers say the ever-present need for foster parents has increased even more during a pandemic that has affected foster parents’ willingness to take children into their homes, disrupted the lives of children in foster care and challenged social workers’ ability to fill the gap.

Foster parents take a step back

Jenni Berg, a counselor at Northstar Middle School in Eau Claire, said she and her husband became interested in foster care in 2019 because they knew there was a shortage of parents.

Amid a pandemic, though, Berg has to think about her foster son and one of her biological daughters who could develop serious complications if they were to get COVID-19.

“We’ve been a little bit hesitant,” Berg said. “(COVID-19) has kind of thrown a wrench into our willingness, I’ll be honest, and other peoples’ willingness to do certain placements.”

Berg said she and her husband plan to offer respite care — or care that gives families a short break from foster care responsibilities — to a young girl for a week this month. But if the girl tests positive for COVID-19, Berg and her family wouldn’t be able to take her in.

“With respite, it opens up the door to exposure to so many other people, and that’s one of the challenges for us,” Berg said. “If we do respite and we take in kids, we have to think about the homes that they’re living in and all of the exposures that they have in their current household.”

Social workers often encourage parents to use respite care, but Berg said her family hasn’t considered doing respite for their foster son during the pandemic. The possible COVID-19 exposure he could have while at the respite care provider’s home could be a threat to their family’s health and safety.

The Berg’s worries about offering care during the COVID-19 pandemic is reflected throughout the 96 foster families currently licensed in Eau Claire County. Melissa Christopherson, a social work manager for DHS, said the list of families willing to foster a child who tests positive for COVID-19 is “very short.”

Christopherson said there has been a “continuing increase” in child abuse and neglect referrals in September, October and November, which also contributes to the increasing need for foster parents.

DHS, housed within the Government Center, offers children, youth and family services, including foster, respite and kinship care. There are currently 96 licensed foster families and 159 foster children placed in homes in Eau Claire County. © 2020 Ta’Leah Van Sistine

Jackie Larsen, a treatment foster care social worker for the Children’s Wisconsin office in Eau Claire, said there were fewer referrals when Wisconsin’s safer-at-home order was in place. Nonessential businesses and schools were closed and in turn, fewer children were placed in foster care.

“When kids aren’t in school, those reports aren’t coming in, which means (kids aren’t) being removed (from their homes),” Larsen said.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families, most referrals are reported by educational personnel. Charts show that referrals decreased to 3,969 in April but increased to 5,853 in September once schools reopened.

‘Routines are 100% critical’

In a matter of four months, Berg’s foster son experienced a series of significant changes, both in his personal life and as a result of the pandemic. He was officially placed in the Berg’s home in December 2019 and by March 2020, his new foster parents became his teachers when schools transitioned online.

Jenni Berg stands next to her 15-year-old and 8-year-old daughters, alongside her foster son and husband. (Family photo)

Berg said her foster son has an intellectual disability and is autistic, so “routines are 100% critical to him.” COVID-19 disrupted all of those routines.

“We were trying to teach him that he has to do school at home and it’s not just hang-out time,” Berg said. “It was incredibly difficult — and he’s such a sweet kid — just for him to grasp, to be able to understand that a weekend looks different than a weekday.”

In terms of visits with his birth mother, Berg’s foster son also faced challenges. His birth mother had significant medical issues and was living in a nursing home during the pandemic, so for five months, she didn’t see her son — for both her and the Berg family’s safety.

Berg said it was difficult for mother and son to communicate virtually. In addition to his intellectual disability and autism, his birth mother is blind.

In July, Berg’s foster son was able to see his birth mother in person again, in the parking lot of his mother’s nursing home. They were socially distanced from each other.

“She had said after the appointment that it was almost more difficult to see him because she couldn’t hug him,” Berg said.

When her foster son’s mother died in October, Berg said the mother’s dying wish was that her son live with, and consider the Bergs, his family.

Visits with birth family members — such as the one Berg’s foster son did with his birth mother — are extremely important for foster children, Valerie Smith, co-executive director of Family Works Programs, Inc., said. For this reason, social workers attempted to connect foster children with their birth families after stay-at-home orders lifted in late spring.

“Kids deserve to see their families,” Smith said. “It’s a right. It’s a need, not a privilege.”

Although COVID-19 has made it more difficult for foster children to visit regularly with their birth parents, Christopherson said social workers still guide foster families on how to establish routines for their foster children.

“(We) encourage foster parents to have conversations with the birth parents right away,” Christopherson said. “What is the child used to? What are their favorite foods? Do they have a blanket or a toy or a stuffed animal?”

Recruiting during a time of need

Trying to recruit foster families has become more difficult for social workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, as most efforts are now virtual.

“When somebody is on the fence like ‘Should I become a foster parent or not?’ they really need to be in person with a group to ask the question,” Smith said.

Family Works, as an organization, has been posting more on their social media platforms about the need for foster parents, but Smith said, “that’s easy to scroll by.”

As a religious organization, Lutheran Social Services of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan would usually speak publicly at church services to recruit foster parents. Allison Novak, the foster care services supervisor at LSS’ Eau Claire office, said now they have to be more creative.

At the LSS office in Eau Claire, Allison Novak, foster care services supervisor for the location, says recruitment was more “hands-on” before the COVID-19 pandemic. © 2020 Ta’Leah Van Sistine

Novak said in addition to posting on their Facebook page and sending emails to churches, LSS also ran a radio ad, expressing an “urgent need for foster parents to care for teens.”

Hope amid adversity

According to Eau Claire County DHS data, 18 foster families have been licensed and 68 foster children have been placed in homes so far between March and November — this stretch of seven months and counting that the pandemic has affected life in the United States.

Berg said her foster son, whom she describes as “a ray of sunshine,” continues to give her hope during these challenging times.

“He has started calling my husband ‘Dad’ all on his own, and he’s called me ‘Mom’ a few times, now that his mom has died,” Berg said. “I can’t tell you what that means to somebody’s heart.”

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After attending the last foster parent informational meeting of the year through Eau Claire County DHS, Emily Herwig said COVID-19 didn’t affect her interest.

For Herwig, becoming a foster parent was a calling — an epiphany.

“I’m 32. I live alone. I’m single,” Herwig, an academic department associate for the psychology department at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, said. “I have a house to myself and I have all this space in my house and space in my heart, so why not share it?”

As an employee at the university, Herwig said she is not worried about contracting COVID-19 because she feels safe at her job and knows that if she begins to feel unsafe, she has her supervisor’s permission to work from home.

Herwig said if she were to get licensed as a foster or respite care provider and accept a child for placement during the pandemic, she would ask if the child is showing any symptoms and if they could be tested.

“Not necessarily that I would be worried that I would get it, but just more so for (the child’s) health and well-being,” Herwig said.

Despite the challenges social workers face with the growing need for foster parents, Sherill Jahr, a social worker for DHS, said she believes there is always hope when working with foster families.

Even though the list of Eau Claire families who are willing to foster a child — who tests positive for COVID-19 — is short, Jahr said there are always people attending the foster parent informational meetings. She said this proves there are still some members of the community who have the desire to foster during this time.

“We’ve been doing informational meetings for a very long time, and there were times when no one would show up,” Jahr said. “In the last two-three years, we have always had somebody at a meeting. That in and of itself speaks volumes that there is interest.”