As cases of coronavirus rise, local governments are making hard decisions about which functions are essential to maintain during the crisis. Many counties are choosing to postpone hearings in which important decisions about reuniting children in foster care with their families are made — effectively delaying their return home.
Such decisions are revealing about our priorities when it comes to the most vulnerable members of our communities. Those involved with the child welfare system will tell you that the best interest of the child is always the paramount concern driving decision-making. If we’re truly committed to advancing the best interests of children, then we will do everything in our power to make sure no child spends one second longer in foster care than is absolutely necessary.
There is a growing recognition of the trauma caused to children by separating them from their families, and it’s long been known that extended stays in foster care have lasting, negative impacts for children. Decades of research show that once a child is removed, rapid reunification with his or her family produces optimal outcomes for both the child and the family. This is especially true during crises, when children are most in need of the love and security that can only be provided by family.
The child welfare system should be prioritizing returning children home in situations where their families have been making progress on their service plans and there is no immediate danger to their safety. This will not only reduce the trauma to children caused by unnecessarily extending their time in foster care but will also free up critical capacity for those children who must enter foster care.
There are many ways to accomplish this goal, but it will require changes to the status quo of case management and, more important, our ideas concerning the role of the child welfare system and view of families. Some changes can be made relatively easily — for example, increasing the use of “monitored return,” in which a child is reunited while his or her family continues to make progress on case plan goals.
Courts should be working to leverage technology to facilitate the return of children to their families. The Texas Office of Court Administration recently announced plans to roll out video conferencing capabilities to more than 3,000 judges in the coming weeks. As this technology becomes available, it is imperative that courts utilize it to prioritize quickly and safely reuniting families.
For too long, the predominant philosophy within child welfare has been rooted in a savior mentality that views the role of the system as that of the rescuer of children. Certainly, there are children who are victims of horrific acts of abuse who must be protected, but such instances represent a small minority of cases.
The vast majority of children who enter foster care do so for reasons of neglect, which is often rooted in poverty. A savior mentality inevitably devalues parents and hurts our ability to restore and strengthen families. At its most extreme, such a view creates a punitive system harmful for all involved.
We should recognize that children and parents possess a fundamental right to their relationship, and children are best served when they are cared for by their parents. A system of care rooted in these principles will be better able to support struggling families, more compassionate and better equipped to respond in times of crises.
It’s unclear how many children who could have gone home will needlessly remain in foster care as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak or how long they’ll be forced to wait before being reunited with their families. Texas should take this opportunity to expedite the reunification of families and reassess its priorities when it comes to the child welfare system.