WRAL Investigates

'We are failing these children': Foster care system struggles in pandemic

Posted February 11, 2021 5:50 p.m. EST
Updated February 11, 2021 6:36 p.m. EST

— Child neglect and abuse during the coronavirus pandemic create challenges for an already strained foster care system.

The growing worry is that the problems go undetected, and even when at-risk children are identified, there aren’t enough safe places to put them.

"I’m sure there are some kids in situations that I don’t even want to think about,"foster parent Kris Strong said.

Teachers and school staff are usually key detectors of neglect or abuse in the home. But with in-person learning interrupted for weeks or months during the pandemic, overall reporting has fallen off by about 20 percent.

"It’s harder to detect," said Paige Rosemond, director of Wake County's Division of Child Welfare.

The reduced case count conflicts with the reality of pandemic driven problems, Rosemond said.

"We’re still really concerned because we know there are so many stressors that have come with the pandemic – economically, loss of jobs, loss of connections with family members," she said.

Jennifer Conyers has seen the good and bad of the foster care system since she was 13.

Now a thriving sophomore at North Carolina A&T State University, 20-year-old Conyers said it took her years to find the right foster fit.

"We don’t use the term foster family at all. Blood cannot make us any closer," she said.

But Conyers said she knows her outcome doesn’t happen for every child in the system.

"Some kids don’t have a place to stay, It hurts me because I want others to feel the love and support that I feel, but it’s not always like that," she said. "They just need a place to lay their head at night. They just want to feel safe, and the pandemic isn’t making it any better. It just makes it a whole lot harder for the youth."

Despite reduced reporting in 2020, Wake County saw a spike in the number of children removed from homes in the fall – 38 in September alone, with another 23 in October. While 83 percent of removals are typically due to neglect, social workers found nearly half during the pandemic, 45 percent, were because of abuse.

"It is a real issue," Rosemond said.

Compounding the problem is the lack of safe options to place at-risk children.

"We have definitely experienced an increase in not having a placement and, in turn, having children at our building awaiting placement," she said.

Up to two children at a time stay at the Wake County Human Services building on a blow-up mattress or a recliner waiting to find a transition home.

"That’s what keeps me up at night because I know that these kids’ needs are not being met while at our building," Rosemond said.

Staffers call hundreds of foster facilities across the country for placement, but there simply aren’t enough, she said.

"We have facilities that are just telling us no we can’t serve that youth," she said.

Strong said she knows the impact family settings can have on these children.

"They need the stability. They yearn for it, they’re hungry for it," she said. "If they can get into a home where they feel cared for and safe and like there’s no threat that they’re going to have to go anywhere again, they bloom."

Strong, who has been caring for a 17-year-old girl for about a year, said she knows many more children are lost in a system overwhelmed and complicated by the pandemic.

"I know they’re there and they are unseen, and it’s very frightening," she said.

"I struggle with the fact that we may be, as an individual system and the systems across the state that are serving this shared population, that we are failing these children," Rosemond said.

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