Government-imposed lockdowns related to the COVID-19 pandemic have disrupted life and created uncertainty for all Americans. Particularly impacted are the parents of children in foster care, many of whom face the very real threat of losing their children forever due to strict legal timelines governing child welfare cases.
Consider Alexis, a domestic violence survivor in her 20s and the doting, single mother of a 7-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son. Her children entered the New York foster care system when Alexis began abusing alcohol as a way to cope with her untreated trauma. After being separated from her children, Alexis threw herself into the treatment program and individual counseling that were recommended, setting aside work and school to focus completely on getting her kids home.
She was progressing well in these services and testing negative for all substances when COVID hit. At first, her services were shut off entirely. Eventually, they were offered remotely, but Alexis could not access them consistently because she lost phone service. On top of this, in-person visits with her children were suspended. For months, she could only see them virtually.
But the worst may be yet to come. As a result of the delay in completing services and disruption of visits, the foster care agency is feeling pressured to shift away from ever reuniting this family. They have told Alexis they may be moving toward having her children adopted instead.
The bleak situation that Alexis and many other parents find themselves in is the unintended product of a federal mandate contained in the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA), which requires states to file a petition seeking Termination of Parental Rights (TPR) for most children who have been in foster care for 15 of the previous 22 months. Given these high stakes and the unprecedented challenges created by COVID-19, child welfare advocates and even federal officials are urging states to take steps to avoid unnecessarily severing family bonds.
In a June 23 letter to state child welfare agencies, associate commissioner of the federal Children’s Bureau Jerry Milner asked states to take extra care in cases where access to services has “been compromised as a result of the pandemic.” Advocates in New York have asked the state to pause terminations during the pandemic.
Despite this guidance, many jurisdictions continue to file TPR petitions, resulting in stark inconsistencies among, and even within, states.
No family should lose the chance to be together due to disruptions that are not their fault. In many states, courts have issued blanket orders canceling in-person visitation and hearings labeled “non-essential,” though they are critical to facilitating the return of children to their families. In one case, a Los Angeles County court delayed the reunification of a family recommended by the Department of Children and Family Services for more than 200 days.
Separating children from their families is an unfortunate necessity in some cases, but it is far from the harmless intervention many advocates of timelines portray it to be. Studies of foster care alumni have revealed more frequent mental health issues, with one study finding that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) rates for foster care alumni were equivalent to or even greater than that of U.S. war veterans. Actions taken to limit visitation and delay reunification decisions while continuing to move forward toward permanently breaking the bonds between children and their parents is not only unjust, it’s harmful for children.
Responding to this injustice, a bipartisan coalition of attorneys and family advocates came together to develop a commonsense solution for preserving families amid the current public health crisis. The solution we propose is simple: temporarily stop the clock on federal termination of parental rights timelines to allow children and families, and the agencies who support them, the time and tools necessary for navigating disruptions caused by the pandemic.
This effort took a major step forward when Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wisc.) introduced the Suspend the Timeline Not Parental Rights During a Public Health Crisis Act. This important piece of legislation will give parents who, like Alexis, have been diligently working services a fair opportunity to restore their families. It also reassures states that they will not jeopardize funding by doing the right thing for families.
Children deserve the right to be with their families whenever safely possible. Temporarily pausing termination timelines is a compassionate, pro-family solution that boldly states we will not allow this pandemic to lead to the tragic and unnecessary destruction of families.