When the coronavirus epidemic took hold in Washington State, roughly 9,000 children were living in foster homes or group facilities, separated from birth parents who were typically allowed to visit with their children in person twice a week.
Now COVID-19 has halted in-person visits. The Washington State Department of Children, Youth & Families suspended them in an attempt to stop the spread of the disease and to prevent the defection of foster parents who fear coronavirus infections coming back with foster children from visits with their birth parents.
As a result, these children and their parents are now marooned in a world of video chats that the state agency is using to replace in-person visits. No hugs. No high-fives. No snuggling.
“Not being able to hug your child is the saddest thing,” said Alise Morrissey of Children’s Home Society of Washington, who directs a statewide program to assist birth parents. She added: “That in-person time is sacred.”
A video chat is the best-case scenario. For those birth parents who lack a smartphone and a data plan, a phone call is as close as they can get to their kids for the foreseeable future.
Even worse, for those without any phones there is no meaningful contact. The state’s official guidance says those families can stay in touch “at a minimum by mailing pictures, drawings or letter writing.”
As days and weeks go by, the lack of actual in-person visits between foster youth and their families is drawing rebukes from birth parents and their lawyers, some of whom are going to court. Judges around the state are weighing in with conflicting rulings.
The emergency measures are raising the issue of whether Washington officials and judges have the authority to limit the legal right of birth parents to see their children in person during an epidemic. With coronavirus much more contagious and deadlier than influenza, any contact between birth parents, their children, and foster families – as well as visitation supervisors and drivers who ferry the kids to visit relatives – carries serious risk. Yet keeping all birth parents from their children is a violation of their legal rights, their advocates argue.
In short, the coronavirus pandemic has upended Washington’s foster care system, which already was in crisis. That’s partly because of a shortage of foster parents willing to take in young people whose parents are unable or unwilling to care for them.
State legal requirements make reuniting foster kids with the birth parents the paramount goal, in line with national recommendations. Yet those birth parents often are struggling with poverty, addiction or other issues that caused the state to remove their children in the first place. Often the hope of recovering their kids is what drives them to do better, child-welfare advocates say.
“Parents are hurting,” said Ambrosia Eberhardt, coordinator for the Parents-for-Parents program in Spokane managed by Catholic Charities of Eastern Washington, which offers birth parents peer support and classes.
Some worried birth parents favor stopping in-person visits now, she said.
However, “I have yet to hear one person [birth parent] say that they’re happy with this scenario and how it’s playing out,” she said.
“It’s a mess out there,” Eberhardt said.
Inslee directed the state agency to offer video sessions for visitations. The department is trying to put devices and Internet services in the hands of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of typically low-income birth parents throughout Washington. Yet, more than three weeks after DCYF said it was suspending in-person visits, caseworkers for birth parents from Spokane to Seattle are reporting that many birth parents aren’t getting to see their kids on video because of a lack of technology.
That’s despite the March 26 written directive from Inslee to DCYF Secretary Ross Hunter instructing Hunter to “provide for video visitation using video conferencing options” and “utilize available funding to acquire and expedite the distribution of necessary equipment” to parents, visitation agencies and foster parents.
Agency spokeswoman Debra Johnson refused to make Hunter available for a telephone interview for this article despite three requests.
In an interview with The Seattle Times published on April 9, Hunter said, “We’re making technology available to foster families or birth families that need it in order to make visits possible.” He added, “We got an army of people sending different [Tracfones] and tablets and all kinds of stuff to get out to people to make this work, and we’ll pay for service.”
But Hunter didn’t give any specifics in the Times interview, such as how many devices the department and its contractors had sent out or to how many birth parents.
Further reporting shows the department doesn’t know the degree to which this is happening. In an email on Friday, Johnson said that “DCYF does not currently have a system in place to track the number of devices that have been distributed to birth parents.”
Foster parents fearful
Washington State was the initial epicenter of the U.S. coronavirus outbreak. Inslee declared a state of emergency for all counties at the end of February, closed schools statewide in mid-March and issued a stay-at-home order in late March.
The governor’s shutdown order said that “caring for a family member, friend, or pet in another household or residence” is permitted. Yet, disease experts say “social distancing,” or keeping at least 6 feet from people outside your household, is vital to reducing the spread of coronavirus. Family-to-family contact also carries significant risk.
Foster parents got that public-health message, and they acted on it. In March, they began voicing fears that kids shuttling between relative visits and foster homes could create pathways for coronavirus infection. For some foster parents, this was a major worry: People over age 65 and those with certain medical conditions are at heightened risk of developing a severe form of COVID-19, the illness caused by coronavirus.
One worried foster parent is Colleen Kaleel-Matzen, 61, who lives near Tacoma with her husband, also 61. They have been foster parents since 2007. She has medical conditions that place her at high risk for COVID-19. The 14-year-old boy who moved in with them on March 6 had two sisters in another home, and the supervisor who shuttled him to visit his sisters and mother drove a car used to transport other children, she said.
Because of the risk of coronavirus transmission, “it’s a very less-than-sanitary circumstance to put these kids through,” she said.
“Visitation is a hot mess,” she added.
Her sentiments aren’t unique. By the end of last month, almost 300 people had signed an online petition calling on Inslee “to step up and say foster children visits are temporarily suspend[ed] until the outbreak is under control.” The petition, published on progressive liberal activist platform Care2, was impassioned.
“If these visits are not stopped, the potential of the spider web effect can affect thousands and thousands of people. We are asking Governor Inslee to suspend these visits … What are we waiting for, more deaths?” said the online petition, which doesn’t list a name or contact information for the person who posted it.
The petition chastised birth parents. They “are the ones who made the choices which in turn lead [sic] to losing their children in the first place. They should not be worried about missing visits at this time.”
Foster parent anxieties and opposition to demands by DCYF caseworkers to continue the visits helped persuade agency leaders on March 17 to limit in-person visitations to those that couldn’t be completed by alternative methods, such as video chat or phone calls.
Two days later DCYF Secretary Hunter made clear in an email to foster parents that he was in favor of stopping most face-to-face visits because of the coronavirus outbreak and doing so “for the next couple of months.” He proposed keeping children connected to their birth parents using video chats.
Visitation policy then emerged from the governor’s office. On March 26, Inslee issued a proclamation waiving and suspending some of the wording in regulations and statutes on birth parent-foster child visits. For example, in one provision of his emergency stay-at-home order, Inslee changed the wording from “the department shall encourage the maximum parent and child and sibling contact possible” to merely “the department shall encourage parent and child and sibling contact.”
Inslee’s office told InvestigateWest that the governor hasn’t eliminated face-to-face visits between birth parents and their children. “The proclamation did not suspend in-person visitations but waived the legal requirement for them,” Inslee’s spokesman, Mike Faulk, wrote in an email.
“There is no one-size-fits-all model for these arrangements under the circumstances of a public health crisis,” Faulk added.
In essence, Inslee is leaving DCYF the option of making decisions about continuing or stopping visits on a case-by-case basis – an approach in line with a memo put out by the Children’s Bureau, a federal agency that manages foster-care and other child-welfare policies. It said it “strongly discourages the issuance of blanket orders that are not specific to each child and family that suspend family time.”
Yet, the state agency has interpreted Inslee’s proclamation as a blanket ban. In an official email to foster parents the day after Inslee’s proclamation, Steven Grilli, DCYF’s director of child welfare programs, wrote that “Inslee issued a proclamation suspending in-person visitation in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Grilli also wrote that “the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) was directed by the governor to place a hold on in-person visits until further notice and initiate remote visitation by video conference.”
When asked why Grilli’s memo was at odds with Inslee’s proclamation, Johnson did not engage in specifics, saying only in an email that did not explain the discrepancy: “Decisions and actions by DCYF in relation to parent-child visitation are intended to align with Governor Inslee’s guidance related specifically to visitation and more generally to the public in response to Covid-19.”
Inslee’s proclamation and Grilli’s guidance appear to have mollified foster parents. But up until those two measures, “foster parents were freaking out a little bit,” said Mike Canfield, executive director of Foster Parent Allies of Washington State, or FPAWS, which advocates for foster families.
In the Times interview, Hunter said DCYF was worried about foster families dropping out of the system – one already short on foster parents. “We were concerned that we would lose 20 to 30 percent of our foster-care base because foster parents were not accepting children back, or they were claiming that they were not going to accept children back, if visits continued,” he said. The Times interview did not cite evidence for the projected loss figure.
In fact, a number of biological parents either accede to or support holding off on in-person visits now.
S. Annie Chung, a Seattle-based lawyer who represents juveniles in foster-care proceedings, said, “Most of my clients are fine with having video visits right now.”
Cellphones and courts
In Spokane, birth-parent access to devices and internet services is “a mixed bag,” Eberhardt said.
Eberhardt said some parents have enough technology in their hands to not only conduct virtual visits with their children in foster care, but also attend to their legal case with the state and take steps toward reunifying with their kids. At the other end of the spectrum, some parents are indigent and homeless and have no way of working on their reunification plan or speaking with their kids due to a lack of technology and money.
Across the state in Mill Creek in Snohomish County, public defender Brittany Tri represents birth parents who either have a child in foster care or who recently had their child returned to them. She said that, among her roughly 70 cases, most of her clients don’t have a home computer and, while most have a phone, many don’t have a data plan. Instead, they need to seek out Wi-Fi for video. Some of those with a child in the foster-care system aren’t getting to speak with their children by video or by phone, she said.
That makes in-person visits even more pressing.
Tri said she has won back the right to in-person visits for a handful of her clients. “What I’ve seen in my cases – the department has refused to make these individual determinations” for birth parents and their rights to in-person visits, she said.
Around the state, some courts are encouraging case-by-case decisions, while others aren’t, interpreting Inslee’s proclamation in different ways. The minutes of a March meeting about foster care and COVID-19 attended by King County Superior Court Judge Elizabeth Berns state that “the court interprets that the proclamation, in accordance with the Stay Home, Stay Healthy order, does suspend in-person visits.” It goes on to say, “The court will not entertain any [legal] motions which deviate from the proclamation.”
Said Chung, the King County lawyer, “This interpretation of the governor’s proclamation was incorrect and extremely harmful.” She noted that Inslee’s stay-at-home order allows Washingtonians to take care of family members.
However, Chung said she has noticed signs from recent foster-care cases that the King County Superior Court may be willing to hear some motions on visitations.
In Snohomish County Superior Court, the acting presiding judge wrote that DCYF can modify or limit court-ordered visits between birth parents and their children. Tri, the public defender representing birth parents, interpreted this measure as giving birth parents the chance to have the court decide their visitation rights on an individual basis.
Decisions made by Inslee, Hunter and judges are creating a multi-layer patchwork of birth parent rights during the coronavirus epidemic. That patchwork could change, since birth-parent lawyers are pressing cases in court and birth-parent advocates are pleading their cause to the governor’s office. Meanwhile, many foster parents are sitting their foster children in front of screens at appointed times for the video chats that have replaced in-person visits with Mom, Dad or siblings.
However, in some cases, foster parents are denying children video chats with their birth parents, said Shrounda Selivanoff, a case worker who is contracted with the Washington State Office of Public Defense and who serves birth parents in King County. She has a few such cases involving birth mothers.
Before the coronavirus measures, keeping foster children from making visits with their birth relatives was a violation of court orders, as well as state law. In normal circumstances, it is almost impossible to pull off: DCYF caseworkers and visitation agency employees often pick up, drop off and observe foster children at parental visits at set times on specific days. Visits typically happen twice a week, according to Hunter.
While all of those birth mothers are speaking with their children by phone calls, “parents should be able to have regular and consistent communication by their preferred method,” Selivanoff said.
“The parent needs to see their kids, and we need to utilize our technology to make that happen,” she said.
InvestigateWest spoke with Anna, a birth mother in Seattle who currently has three preschool-age children in foster care. (Because of the risk of retaliation from both DCYF and her children’s foster parents, InvestigateWest is using a pseudonym for her.) As of mid-April, Anna was waiting on a DCYF caseworker to contact the foster licensor for one foster parent to compel her to do video chats. “I just keep getting the runaround,” Anna told InvestigateWest. A DCYF caseworker also said to Anna that DCYF would offer her video visits, but only after asking the foster parents whether they were comfortable with the idea, she said.
Anna hadn’t seen her kids, in person or by video, since mid-March. “It doesn’t feel too great,” she said. The younger two of the three are “very attached to me,” Anna said, and she worries about the mental health of all three.
In fact, even video calls can be distressing to the birth parents of children in foster care who, like all parents, fret about their kids.
Some of Selivanoff’s birth-parent clients have been distraught after seeing their children on video, with some kids calling from darkened rooms, appearing with fresh haircuts with their hair lopped off or receiving coaching from foster parents in the background.
“My client was so panicked, [saying] ‘I have to get my kid out of there’ ” and get them home, Selivanoff recounted about one of her birth parents who had been disturbed by the look and feel of a video chat.
In his Seattle Times interview, Hunter said, “There are some things we’re finding with visits on video that are actually more positive than in-person visits.” Hunter also said, “They happen more frequently.” That is incorrect. Some birth parents have had their number of visits reduced as a result of the coronavirus restrictions, said Morrissey, of Children’s Home Society of Washington.
Morrissey, who directs the Parents for Parents program statewide, said she hasn’t heard of more-frequent visits as a result of the jump to video. “We’re not seeing that on our side of things,” she said.
She knows firsthand about separation. In 2009, the state removed Morrissey’s daughter from her immediately after birth because of her then-homelessness and methamphetamine addiction. She wasn’t able to see her baby for the first 11 months of her life. Her daughter, now 11 years old, has been back living with her since she was about a year and a half.
“Yes, being able to see [your children] on a screen is better than nothing, but it doesn’t even compare” with face-to-face visits, Morrissey said.
Foster parents take risks
Even in the midst of the coronavirus epidemic, some foster parents are opening their homes to children in need. And some foster families are putting their health on the line.
One is Kryssi Dill, a foster mother in Bremerton, who along with her husband risked coronavirus exposure in order to smooth the transition of 10- and 11-year-old boys in their short-term care to a long-term foster home that is planning to adopt them.
The first Saturday in April, the future foster parents took up Dill’s invitation and joined Dill, her husband, her 11-year-old biological son, and the two foster children for lunch. They gathered around Dill’s dining room table for a meal of baked barbeque chicken, Caesar salad, and one foster child’s favorite chips, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. After a roughly 3-hour visit, the two boys returned with the other couple to their house, with Dill picking them up on Sunday.
The following Saturday, the same group – plus Dill’s 5-year-old foster daughter – met again, this time at the couple’s house for a 2-hour visit that included lunch.
“That was a risk,” Dill said of the pair of visits. Yet, the visits were vital because “the boys were really stressed out about up and moving so quickly,” she said. With both foster families comfortable with the idea of meeting rather than dropping the boys off, “we just made it happen,” Dill said.
She said that she aims for positive transitions for all of the foster children who come to her home. That is because, Dill said, “I grew up in and out of foster care myself.”
Last Tuesday, Dill’s family took in three new foster kids, a set of siblings. She was busy setting up and assisting their video calls with their birth mother.
Update 7:16 p.m. April 23, 2020: After publication of this article, The Seattle Times said it had misquoted DCYF Secretary Ross Hunter in its April 9 Q&A, which this article cited after Hunter’s agency refused to make him available for an interview with InvestigateWest. The Seattle Times originally quoted Hunter as saying, “There are some things we’re finding with visits on video. They’re actually more positive than in-person visits.” On Thursday, after publication of this article, the newspaper corrected his words to read, “There are some things we’re finding with visits on video that are actually more positive than in-person visits.”