Seattle – Leroy Pascubillo missed his daughter’s first step, her first word and countless other milestones. After being born addicted to heroin, she’d been placed with a foster family, and he counted the days between their visits as he tried to regain custody. But because of the pandemic, the visits dwindled and went virtual, and all he could do was watch his daughter – too young to engage via computer – try to crawl through the screen.
They’re among thousands of families nationwide whose reunifications have been snarled in the foster care system as courts delayed cases, went virtual or temporarily shut down, according to an Associated Press analysis of child welfare data from 34 states.
The decrease in children leaving foster care means families are lingering longer in a system intended to be temporary, as critical services were shuttered or limited. Vulnerable families are suffering long-term and perhaps irreversible damage, experts say, which could leave parents with weakened bonds with their children.
The AP’s analysis found at least 8,700 fewer reunifications during the early months of the pandemic compared with the March-to-December period the year before – a decrease of 16%. Adoptions, too, dropped – by 23%. Overall, at least 22,600 fewer children left foster care compared with 2019.
“Everybody needed extra help, and nobody was getting extra help,” said Shawn Powell, a Parents for Parents advocacy program coordinator in King County, Washington.
For months, King County, like many parts of the country, suspended nearly all hearings except emergency orders, which led to prioritizing child removals over family reunifications. Adoptions slowed. Services needed for reunification – psychiatric evaluations, drug testing, counseling, and public transportation to access these services – also were limited.
During the period examined in AP’s analysis, the total foster care population dropped 2% overall – likely a result of the significant decrease in child abuse and neglect reports, where the process to remove a child from a home typically begins.
Those in foster care are disproportionately children of color and from poor families, national data show. Those groups tend to have more contact with social service agencies that are mandated to report potential abuse and neglect, which means the pandemic has amplified not just the challenges of poor parenting but of parenting while poor.
“The systemic problems around racism and poverty in COVID and how people are treated in the child welfare system may be compounding,” said Sharon Vandivere of the group Child Trends, who noted that longer stays in foster care are inherently traumatic and make reunifications less likely.
Illinois was the only state that saw an increase in foster care exits. Others in AP’s analysis acknowledged drops but said each case has unique circumstances beneath the numbers.
Leroy Pascubillo, now 51, had used drugs over the course of four decades, but said he started working toward sobriety after his daughter’s birth, in February 2019.
The court put him in the only Seattle-area rehab center that allows children to stay on site with their fathers. He had a few in-person visits with his daughter weekly and believed that if he got through the initial stages, she could join him in March 2020 while he completed treatment. The pandemic upended that plan.
“You start building that relationship, and then it’s taken away,” he said. All the more painful was that he knew his daughter, now 2, had no contact with her mother. Pascubillo said she hasn’t participated in the custody case; she couldn’t be reached by the AP.
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