Pandemic stops Wisconsin foster care children from healing their trauma

Abby Johnson

It’s a Thursday, and it’s sunny. On a September weekday at 7 a.m., Bev Kidder was likely waking her five-year-old foster twins up to get ready for school.

At school, Kidder’s twins are free from her control. She is thankful that unlike last year, the children are able to attend school in person.

“Being a foster parent, while hard sometimes, is extremely fulfilling,” Kidder said.

On the playground, her foster twins might choose to fly in the sky on the swings at recess or get rowdy and play basketball. Then as the clock struck three o’clock, the sound of a school bell echos through the hallways and out into the crisp fall air. The children would be dismissed.

After school, Kidder’s foster children have an expectation of how their night will unfold. They know supper will be served to them, instead of having to make it for their family. They know each night they will be read to and bathed, instead of going to bed dirty. They know they will be safe, instead of hiding from their worst nightmares. Not every child in Wisconsin can say the same.

For children in the Wisconsin foster care, activities outside the house like school therapy, sports or youth groups can be the opportunity to be noticed and transitioned from an unsafe home to a safe home or to heal from a past trauma. Children who enter the system could have any number of challenges, including drug or alcohol addiction, self-harm tendencies, speech delays, delinquency issues, special needs, mental health impairments or self-regulation problems. Specialized therapy, individualized education plan and community involvement in groups like sports, church or 4-H can help children find an identity, heal from their pasts and create healthy habits.

When COVID-19 hit Wisconsin, many, if not all of these services and activities shut down. For the first time since before being removed from their dangerous home, foster children were left without adequate options to try and heal from their traumatic experiences. Children who were already in foster care struggled to gain access to therapy, mental health counseling or any academic support that provided to healing their pre-pandemic trauma. Additionally, experts can derive from the data reported that when activities were suspended for in-person gatherings in 2020 due to COIVD-19, reports of child abuse were went unreported. Like the rest of the America, Wisconsin struggled to reach abused and neglected children with a decrease of reports being turned in. Solutions are necessary to reach unreported traumatized children who have not been placed in the foster system. Additionally, for foster children who went without access to services like therapy, experts predict society is likely to be harmed significantly if their needs are left unaddressed and unhealed.

For Bev Kidder and her husband, COVID-19 placed strenuous expectations on their shoulders as foster parents to two traumatized siblings. Since 1999, Kidder and her husband have welcomed children into their home after being inspired by their pastor who was a foster parent. Today, they live in Northern Wisconsin and house a set of 5-year-old twins; one girl and one boy.

Before the pandemic, the kids were involved in their church, school, counseling. In addition to their community involvements, the both children engage in occupational play therapy. When the pandemic came, Kidder and her husband found it difficult not only to educate the twins, but also to keep them engaged with activities.

“School was online, and pretty much worthless,” Kidder said. “They didn’t do anything to help the kids.” Apart from school, having both children try to engage in play therapy, a common technique used by occupational therapists, was not an easy feat when transitioned virtually. “As you can imagine, it’s pretty hard having kids color and talk to their therapist on Zoom,” Kidder said.

Shanna Schweitzer, a social worker for a private foster child placing agency called Family Works based in Madison, Wisconsin says Kidder’s situation and thoughts are relatable for Wisconsin foster parents today.

“As for therapists, some still won’t meet in person. Medical appointments and dental appointments are hard to reschedule, especially for kids in the (foster care) system who have the lowest level of health care provided by the state. Any problem a functioning adult is having in regards to access to services right now, is ten times harder for a foster kiddo.”

Schweitzer has been a licensed social worker for 15 years who previous to her current position, worked for the La Crosse sector of Child Protective Services (CPS) in Trempealeau County.

For every child in the Wisconsin Foster Care System, she said a unique placement plan needs to be created. Most of the time these plans include therapy or intensive counseling.

“For some of our foster parents, this pandemic has been harder than ever,” she said. To ask a foster parent to be a teacher, a therapist, a doctor and an activities director all day, every day is the perfect recipe for burnout. “Our [foster] kids have significant needs unlike normal functioning children, and foster parents can’t do it all.”

For foster families like Kidder, housing foster children with significant needs without the normal standard of therapy increases the possibility of delayed or regressed progress in therapy grew more likely as services providing traumatic relief stopped abruptly. Wisconsin foster children struggled to progress in healing their pre-pandemic traumatic patterns. Today, a decrease of therapy availability, mental health counseling or academic support inflates the problem.

The need for behavioral health services such as adolescent therapy and mental health counseling increased throughout 2020. According to the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, a 52% increase nationally and 35% increase in Wisconsin was recorded during September of 2020 for services regarding therapy and mental health. Additionally, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services reported that Crisis Focused help was the top service used in 2020.

Though Kidder’s foster twin’s experienced setbacks in their education and progress in therapy, she believes they made up remarkable ground and are each at their normal levels in education and mental health.

“It’s probably their age, if they were a little older and a little more mature, their learning would’ve suffered more. They’re okay. I really didn’t see regression after they got back into school,” Kidder hypothesizes.

Above are the Kidder’s twins exploring a country cornfield in early April 2020. Photo provided by Shanna Schweitzer.

 

Instead of waiting for the bus in the mornings, Kidder’s foster twins fetch the mail in the afternoons. Photo provided by Bev Kidder.

 

Kidder’s foster twins jumped on the trampoline for “recess” during virtual school. Photo provided by Bev Kidder.

While Kidder was forced to morph into whichever therapist, teacher or coach she found the children needed, she often found it difficult to recharge and keep up with the kids. In a normal year, it is typical for foster parents to take advantage of respite, a service provided by the Wisconsin State Foster Care System.

When a child goes into respite, they are taken to a licensed respite guardian’s home who takes care of them for a limited amount of time. Unlike children outside of the system, foster children cannot simply go stay at a friend’s house, or be babysat. When a child goes into respite, the length of time they typically stay at their temporary home ranges anywhere from a weekend long to a full week. This enables foster parents to take a break and relax without needing to take care of their foster children. At the same time, it gives children the opportunity to take a break from their foster parents.

Because of the pandemic and quarantine regulations, respite services were stopped. This meant that foster parents were now forced to work their regular jobs, school their high needs foster children, and try to guide and help heal them all by themselves.

Kidder’s need for a break is understandable.

The hardest part about the pandemic for Kidder’s foster children, she hypothesizes, was their increased dysregulation from being out of their normal routine. “Other than that,” Kidder says, “They’re really back to normal.” Though this may be the case for Kidder’s twin’s, some experts disagree.

Melissa Jenneman, a licensed therapist specialized in trauma and complex post-traumatic stress disorder with experience counseling foster children for thirteen years, says some foster kids fell back intellectually or mentally because of isolation.

“Online school was horrible for kids with ADHD, because often trauma looks like ADHD, and we saw the effects of that. If foster parents had outside jobs, they were screwed. There was definitely regressing in academics,” Jenneman said.

Jenneman noted in comparison to children she councils outside of the Wisconsin Foster Care System, children within the foster care system are far harder to help because of their significant relational and bonding trust issues.

For anyone, “relationships are paramount for figuring out safety. When kids don’t have that, they enter the foster care system, and they don’t have a sense of figuring out if they’re safe or not,” Jenneman said.

Jenneman described the position a foster child would take after growing up in a household with a person with alcoholism, addiction or harmful tendencies towards themselves and others in the home as harmful to the child’s brain development. If a child is used to dangerous or possibly illegal things happening, the child will think those experiences are normal. These are problems many children outside of the foster care system do not experience. Foster children are commonly used to being betrayed and heartbroken and have a tendency to feel those feelings over and over Jenneman says.

Jenneman’s point is that foster children already have a harder time opening up and engaging with a therapist. Virtual therapy sessions with foster children are pointless because trust cannot be formed virtually. Therefore, healing cannot progress. Foster parent Kidder agrees with Jenneman’s expertise.

How can this be fixed?

Jenneman proposed full time, in-person therapy, school and routine of regular activities. She also mentioned the importance of group therapy to let each other’s peers know they are not alone in their struggles.

According to Jenneman, “We should be talking in groups in schools about things like alcoholism happening in the home or unhealthy relationships. You’re not the only kid that’s struggling, and the struggling isn’t because of you. Emotional regulation skills should be taught for kids to figure out what they’re feeling and why.”

Like Schweitzer, Jenneman agrees that access to services is the most crucial component in helping heal traumatized children in the foster system. Likewise, it serves as the most important factor in recognizing and catching a child outside of the foster care system experiencing ongoing trauma in real time.

As experts in their careers who deal with foster children daily, both Jenneman and Schweitzer believe that due to services such as athletics, youth groups and therapy stopping or going virtual, there were children who witnessed and experienced non-reported abuse or neglect during quarantine because there wasn’t anyone around to report such trauma suspicions.

Once the pandemic hit and quarantine became the norm, a shadow of mystery was cast over everyone’s homes, leaving some children in dangerous environments for 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In a 2020 report published by the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families, during the spring, there was a significant drop in Child Protective Services (CPS) reports. In March, 5,913 reports of possible child abuse or neglect were sent into the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families. In April, 3,969 reports of possible abuse and neglect were sent in. Wisconsin CPS reports didn’t reach their regularly reported level until November.

Jenneman and Schweitzer agree: there are children who experience unreported trauma due to the effects of COVID-19.

Today, the question becomes, what can be done to help and protect these children shadowed by the isolating effects caused from the pandemic?

According to Schweitzer, nothing can be done. With therapy and community activities being suspended to meet in person, children who have been abused have fallen through the cracks. Though the entire Wisconsin CPS system is trying to be better, ultimately the system falls short at being proactive instead of reactive Schweitzer says.

To report abuse, evidence that abuse or neglect being carried out is happening in the present time is needed. Like all social workers, Schweitzer knows unreported evidence of abuse becomes moot after time has passed. Unless reported during or right after it has taken place, CPS cannot do anything about past abuse. In some cases, Schweitzer mentions that even waiting a few days could be the difference of whether or not a child’s situation can be looked into.

“You can’t just go into someone’s home without legal evidence, but at the same time, we’re [the CPS system] waiting after kids has been horrifically traumatized or abused, most of the time not even reported, and then we try to change the narrative to their life when all of this damage has already been done.”

To help change this, Schweitzer suggests the need for communities to begin engaging with families who are struggling. Having early intervention, promoting head start learning programs and keeping families involved in the community are all ways to catch signs of abuse in their early stages. Schweitzer adds that in 2019 Wisconsin passed the, “Families First” act that serves as an aid in helping families before they fall into the child welfare system. However, experts including Schweitzer and Jenneman add that implementing a new act usually takes about 20 years to be effectively used within the Wisconsin CPS system.

Jenneman encourages communities to watch out for each other and each other’s children, neighbor to neighbor. For children whose abuse did go unreported and may never surface, relational trauma with the abuser will forever alter how the child engages in relationships for the rest of their lives. Jenneman stressed that children internalize the messages that are given to them, giving messages the power to destroy their self-esteem, create poor coping skills and worst of all, becoming at risk of repeating the cycle.

Breaking abusive cycles and promoting child welfare doesn’t start with the Wisconsin Foster Care System, CPS or even the foster families. Both Schweitzer and Jenneman agree, it starts with the community being involved and relationships being formed.

“Average people living in the community can be the change,” Schweitzer says. “They can change the entire trajectory of a child’s life.”