Delays, despair as pandemic halts family reunification hearings across US

(NEW YORK) — Nearly every month for the last several years, Darlene has made a 500-mile trek from her home in the Bronx, New York to visit her 4-year-old grandson, Nathaniel, who lives in Detroit.

Nathaniel has been in foster care in Michigan since he was an infant. His mother took him there on vacation and left him with a friend. It was later reported to police that he had been abandoned. Darlene has been seeking custody since 2016, trying to become Nathaniel’s foster parent while his mother completes requirements in the hopes of regaining permanent custody.

It was a sluggish, bureaucratic process, spanning courts in two states. More than a year passed before she was initially approved for placement. The battle led her to the Third Judicial Circuit Court of Michigan, where a hearing was set for April 17, the first step toward a final ruling on Nathaniel’s permanent placement. And then the coronavirus outbreak struck, bringing the country’s judicial system — and Darlene’s custody battle — to a screeching halt.

“It’s going to take more time now,” Darlene said. “I’m frustrated. I’m sad. He was living with me. I was always part of his life until that incident happened three years ago.”

Darlene is not alone. The coronavirus outbreak and the subsequent shutdown has put family reunification hearings across the country on hold as courts are either closed or operating on a limited basis, threatening to create a backlog of custody cases that could delay family reunifications for thousands of children.

There are currently 437,000 children in the foster care system with more than 69,000 of those living in institutions, group homes and other placements instead of with a family member, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. There are no national statistics on pending reunification cases, but in 2018, the agency tallied 139,004 children who left foster care and were reunited with their families or placed with a relative.

Federal law requires individual states to establish a permanency plan for every child in foster care, which is used to not only determine where the child will live but also ensure that those fighting for custody of a child are prepared to take it on and can meet the child’s needs. In many states, that means would-be parents are required to take certain classes, but many of the offices and agencies offering such services are now closed indefinitely.

If a child remains in foster care for 15 out of 22 months, federal law requires the child welfare agency to ask the court to terminate parental rights, according to the Federal Children’s Bureau, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. If parental rights are terminated, the child is then eligible for adoption. This requirement does not apply if the child is cared for by a relative, if it is decided that termination is not in the best interest of the child, or if the State has not provided adequate services for the family.

Vivek Sankaran, director of the Child Advocacy Law Clinic and the Child Welfare Appellate Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School, told ABC News that as families, attorneys and judges scramble to find alternative ways to move cases forward, there is great concern for what happens when the courtrooms finally open again.

Judges and child welfare agencies, Sankaran said, should take the difficulties caused by the pandemic into account when making placement decisions.

“We’re a time driven system,” said Sankaran. “When we remove our thumb from the pause button and move on, what happens then? The last months of inactivity should not be counted against a family when they haven’t progressed because nothing is being offered to them and they’re not being allowed to see their children due to no fault of their own.”

Raquel Mehring, CEO of the Milwaukee-based Parents Place, which offers services that include parent education, parent support groups, supervised visitations and safety services for biological parents who are fighting for reunification with their children, told ABC News they are following all state and federal guidelines to ensure they can remain open to serve the more than 1,500 parents they assist each year, using video conferencing services to connect biological parents with their children in foster care.

“We are working hard to make sure that families continue to progress through their parenting and reunification goals,” Mehring said. “We are hanging in there, remaining optimistic and carrying on with business with the new normal.”

Mehring adds that with the loss of jobs across the country, there will inevitably be parents currently with pending reunification cases who now don’t have the means to visit their children or continue a costly legal battle.

Tara Perry, CEO of the National Court Appointed Special Advocates and Guardians ad Litem Association for Children, which supports volunteers who are appointed by judges to advocate for children’s best interests, told ABC News those jobs are so vital during the current crisis that the group is providing emergency grants to local offices.

“Our volunteers are needed to advocate for children and families now more than ever, not only to help judges make the most well-informed decisions for children and their families, but to build a system of support around children at this difficult and unprecedented time,” Perry said.

And for foster parents who are providing homes for children as the coronavirus crisis prevents them from seeing biological family members, they are also adapting, using technology to connect them.

Elizabeth Hope, a foster parent for SOS Children’s Villages Illinois, currently has six children in her care, from ages 2 to 13.

“They know they can FaceTime and they make it fun,” Hope said. “We did a FaceTime for three of my kids and they had created a whole show for us, they wrote poems and songs and we let the dad see it on FaceTime. So it was fun for the dad and he could see they’re having fun too.”

For children in foster care, she said, there is a sad silver lining when it comes to social distancing.

“Our kids have already gone through the trauma of separation,” Hope said. “They are already more prepared for it probably than the average kid.”

Despite the uncertainty and threat of continuing delays, Darlene says, knowing she’s closer to having Nathaniel back gives her hope. The last three years have been a long, hard fight, she said, but she’s willing to continue for as long as it takes.

“I’ve redone his room here three times already. Because he was a baby, you know, first I had to get him a crib, then a toddler bed and now he has bunk beds,” she said. “I’m never gonna quit. That’s the thing, you can never give up.”

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