By: Emily Kortright
Since the World Health organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11th, much of the discussion around coronavirus has centered around the effects on the healthcare system and the stock market. But this pandemic reaches much farther than that. To the Pennsylvania child welfare system, this is a time of more than just social distancing and working from home: the pandemic and response to it permeate all aspects of the lives of dependent children. While business is suspended, the very real issues and hardships these children face continue uninterrupted and – in many cases – exacerbated.
Currently, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is under statewide COVID-19 mitigation. What this means is that non-essential travel and all gatherings are discouraged, and non-life-sustaining businesses have been ordered to close for the foreseeable future. In addition, Governor Wolf has issued a Stay at Home Order, effective until April 6, in many counties. These restrictions seem simple enough but have complicated effects on youth in the dependency system.
Order in the Court: Mitigation within the Pennsylvania Court System
The Supreme Court has issued an order closing all Pennsylvania courts to the public, beginning March 18th and subject to reevaluation on April 3rd. The Superior Court has extended deadlines (apart from Children’s Fast Track Appeals), and in Cumberland County, the president judge issued an order closing the courthouse and all county-owned facilities to residents and non-essential activities. “[C]ourt proceedings and court-related matters as specifically indicated” by this order are the only exception. There are worries within the legal community that these closings and delays will cause backlogs within the system.
As of today, all “essential” court obligations (such as emergency shelter care or adjudicatory hearings) will proceed as originally planned, albeit largely over the phone, videoconference, or other method of telecommunication. This is a problem in and of itself, given that Pennsylvania rules require that children attend hearings, technology is not easily accessible for all children within the system, and face time is particularly important for children who are nonverbal. Conducting court proceedings over telecommunication can cause misunderstandings and an inability to observe body language or other potentially telling behaviors.
For dependency court, however, “non-essential” proceedings should not be confused as being unimportant. For example, in Cumberland County Judicial Conferences are conducted every six months to check in with dependent children and make sure that all parties are working toward the best interests of the child, and are intended to be less formal and more conversational. These proceedings put less pressure on the child, allow them to be heard by the judge directly, and often provide opportunities for potential conflicts to be identified and resolved early. Cancelling proceedings impede the ability of these youth to have regular, meaningful communication with, and access to, the court.
Teamworking from Home: COVID-19’s Impact on the Functioning of Legal Teams
Dependent children work with an extensive legal team that includes a Child and Youth Services caseworker, a GAL (Guardian Ad Litem), the child’s parent(s) or guardian(s), often in addition to a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate), an Educational Decision Maker, and an attorney. Normally, this legal team would attempt to meet in person with the child on a regular basis, but with the shutdown of non-essential businesses and Stay at Home Orders, these meetings are impossible. This makes staying on the same page very difficult and miscommunications over e-mail likely. Moreover, if the child does not have access to a phone or internet, the team will have a harder time assessing the child’s well-being.
Individually, Pennsylvania’s pandemic mitigation interferes with the roles of each team member. With law school shutdowns, legal interns can no longer attend court hearings, leaving supervising attorneys to handle all cases on their own. The limitation of court proceedings to emergency hearings limits attorneys and their clients’ ability to present arguments and situations to the court than may not be emergencies yet, but could still be just as important to the child’s well-being or could eventually turn into emergencies if left unattended. The increased difficulty of communication with children by CASAs and attorneys makes it harder for these team members to make recommendations to the court as to the child’s best interests, not to mention the fact that CASAs are often a main source of comfort and social interaction for the child.
Locked Down and Shut Out: Child Welfare Facilities’ Response to the Pandemic
Many dependent youths reside in group homes, shelters, or RTFs (Residential Treatment Facilities), which have shut their doors to visitors during the pandemic. This creates a unique set of circumstances in which children are kept in close quarters with little opportunity to “socially distance” themselves, thereby increasing the risk of spreading COVID-19. Pandemic mitigation can lead to staffing shortages within these facilities, which can cause transportation issues for emergencies or older youths who must still go to work. Visitation restrictions mean that parents and children cannot engage in reunification visits, and facilities cannot accept any new children in at this time.
Just within the past few weeks, we have seen the consequences of lockdowns at facilities. As children and youth get restless from lack of interaction and stimulation, they act out, leading facilities and/or children to request re-placement elsewhere. Normally, the child’s legal team could work to find a foster home or another facility to send the child to, but shutdowns limit the child’s options drastically, leading children to be sent to facilities that might not suit their needs. This presents unique challenges to the purpose of the dependency system, which is to work toward the protection of children.
What Do Stay at Home Orders Mean for Many Dependent Children?
Stay at Home Orders and school closures are cause for concern for dependent children in foster homes and original homes. The most obvious concern is the risk of abuse. With restrictions on visitation by caseworkers and legal team members, and increased time in the home with unforeseen strain on both foster and biological parents, there is a greater likelihood of abuse with less oversight by the dependency system.
Financially and logistically, having children at home all day creates strain on foster parents and biological parents who may rely on public services and benefits and now must make up the difference, especially if they have suffered a layoff or lost wages as a result of the pandemic. For foster children, this could lead to re-placement requests by foster homes who find themselves struggling to maintain their own household, let alone take care of an additional member’s needs without the aid of school or other public benefits. This could also lead to housing struggles for children in their original homes if biological parents struggle to make rent. These strains on parents also raise questions as to whether the dependency system will see an increase in newly adjudicated dependent children, as parents struggle to meet the needs of their families.
School’s Out Forever? The Fate of Education and What it Means for Dependent Children
On March 23rd, the Pennsylvania Department of Education announced that all schools will remain closed until April 6th with the potential to reopen April 9th pending reevaluation, but it is far more likely that the shutdown will be extended. Legally, the schools have no obligation to provide schooling during extended closures. Despite the Education Department’s encouragement to offer instruction to students, its communications to districts have left them confused as to how to proceed, especially regarding providing education for students with special needs. This means that since the shutdown students have largely gone without instruction, a fact that presents a number of repercussions when considered with the knowledge that, should schools reopen, students will not be able to attend past the June 30th fiscal year end to make up what they missed.
For children in the dependency system as a result of truancy, Pennsylvania’s relaxation of the 180-day school attendance requirement and the inability to continue their learning puts their cases in a state of flux. There is nothing these children or their guardians can do to meet their goals, yet they remain in the system with expectations. For dependent children who are in high school and need to catch up on credits, the shutdown creates an additional hurdle to graduation that is not their fault, but serves to punish nonetheless. Even if schools decide to proceed with remote and virtual learning, many dependent children living in shelters or foster homes have little to no access to computers, let alone internet.
School closures deprive dependent children of meaningful socialization and additional support systems that they desperately need and take away what is often one of the only aspects of normalcy in their lives. And even more urgently, the closures place an additional strain on children and foster families who generally rely on free and reduced-price meals at schools.
The Effects of Mandatory Social Distancing on Dependent Youth
With Stay at Home Orders in place and non-essential activities on hold, dependent children are confined to their foster homes, shelters, and other facilities with little access to the outside world. This means that extended family or friends can no longer visit, child welfare caseworkers’ ability to ensure the well-being of children is limited, and access to legal counsel is restricted to phone calls or e-mails.
Many child welfare offices are moving towards remote operation and visitation requirements for caseworkers have been relaxed. While this makes sense from a public health standpoint, it takes away often crucial check-ins with these children, whose situations can change at the drop of a hat, and makes it harder for caseworkers to remain in regular contact with their children considering technological difficulties. Lack of visitation also presents challenges for children whose goal is reunification, as parents cannot visit their children to prove that they are making necessary strides to have their children returned home.
Protecting the Well-Being of Pennsylvania’s Dependent Children: Mitigation’s Influence on Mental and Medical Healthcare
As a result of their unique and difficult situations, most dependent children deal with a physical and mental illness and may have a crucial need for the support of mental health professionals. However, statewide shutdowns of non-essential business and preoccupation of medical professionals with COVID-19 present hurdles to children’s access to appropriate care. Necessary appointments have been rescheduled due to lack of emergency and important treatment programs for substances and mental illness are being put on hold, delaying and potentially harming the well-being of these children.
While it is heartening to see mental health professionals offering their services via telecommunication methods, lack of access to technology makes it hard for dependent youth to take advantage. For children in facilities, it may also be nearly impossible to find the time or setting to have a private and confidential conversation with a therapist. There is no telling what the lasting consequences of this social isolation and lack of structure will be on mental health, especially considering the fact that many children do not understand these restrictions as public health necessities, but instead see them as further abandonments and interruptions to their life.
The Children’s Advocacy Clinic’s Efforts and How You Can Remain Informed
Since the shutdown in early March, the Children’s Advocacy Clinic has come face-to-face with many, if not all, of the issues discussed above. For this reason, we have undertaken this project which seeks to research all the aspects of the child welfare system that have been, and could potentially be, impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Each week we will put out a new post that provides a more in-depth analysis of the issues presented within a specific area and suggests ways to address and mitigate damage to these children.