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Foster care system changes to adapt to COVID-19

SALISBURY — As Erin Gambrell walked through her house, flushing toilets and lifting up the door to her washing machine, she couldn’t help but feel awkward.

Using a video chat, Gambrell was taking her social worker, George Montgomery, on a virtual tour through her home. It was nothing Montgomery hadn’t seen before, having been to Gambrell’s house in Kannapolis many times. He had sat on the sofa, walked in the kitchen and checked things out to make sure that the home was equipped with everything necessary for Gambrell to take care of Rowan County foster children. 

Until the spring, Montgomery’s quarterly visits had always been in-person. And they’d always been something Gambrell looked forward to. Now, the virtual visits feel clunky and impersonal.

“It’s been very awkward to be honest,” Gambrell said. “I can’t wait for it to go back to normal. I like the interaction. I like when they come and visit and we can sit down and have a conversation.”

Although taking a social worker on a video tour through her house is awkward, it’s far from the most difficult change that COVID-19 has caused Gambrell to make. From arranging tele-health visits to managing jumbled school schedules, being a foster parent or provider has never been more demanding. The restrictions put in place by COVID-19 have also strained the county staff members who support foster care parents.

Despite obstacles brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, Rowan County’s foster care system has fared relatively well, withstanding the difficulties by adapting and overcoming.

Bracing for impact

There are currently about 200 children in the Rowan County foster care system. That number has never been higher than right now, said Micah Ennis, the interim director of Social Services for Rowan County. But the high numbers aren’t necessarily due to COVID-19.

“I think it’s just been a slow climb over the last several fiscal years,” Ennis said. “I think a lot of that has to do with the opioid epidemic. I think probably most of the children who come into care almost inevitably substance abuse disorder of some sort is related to that.”

As other counties have seen the number of children in their foster care systems climb during the coronavirus pandemic, Rowan County has only seen a mild bump. It’s a testament to the work of the county’s foster care staff, the courts and the foster parents and providers, Ennis said.

Quick communication was a critical factor in the county’s ability to adjust when COVID-19 began to disrupt the normal way the foster care system operates.

“Our foster care supervisors and staff, as soon as we found out there was an issue, there was really quick communication about what we needed to do and how we needed to do it,” Ennis said. 

When COVID-19 began to spread across the country in the spring, Joshua Stutts was concerned. The Rowan County social work supervisor was worried that the pandemic would impact the ability for his staff to find temporary homes, called “placements,” for foster children. An inability to find accommodating foster parents or other community placements would have led to a major backup in the number of children in group homes or living in unsafe situations.

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised that it hasn’t come to fruition in the same way I thought it would,” Stutts said. “We had had some challenges regarding mental health services, but a lot of the placements I was anticipating struggling really haven’t. We’ve found new placements and we’ve even had new foster families and new placement providers interested in providing services. Whenever everything else stopped, the community’s interest in taking care of our foster youth didn’t.”

When the pandemic came, families that could take on more foster children did so and new families agreed to become foster care providers for the first time. Family members of foster children stepped up to the plate as well.

The first step to becoming a foster care provider is attending an informational meeting, which is typically held about once every month. The pandemic forced Social Services to cancel one informational meeting, but staff members knew that it was critical to find a way to continue to hold the meetings since they’re the primary entry point for recruiting additional foster parents.

“We only missed about one informational meeting in person,” Ennis said. “Then the next time we hosted one we did it virtually and we had quite a few people participate.”

If a potential foster care parent or provider is still interested after going through an informational meeting, they must then attend several training sessions. At first, Rowan County held several training sessions online, but quickly transitioned back to an altered, more condensed version of in-person meetings.

“This team had two classes in one day for several weeks. They split the class in half so we could meet the social distancing requirements and they put on these classes twice a day,” Ennis said. “And this class is very intense. That’s impressive to me. They were determined that these folks were going to get trained and we weren’t going to let COVID slow us down.”

Most of the parents and providers that went through those classes became certified in June, Ennis said.

As those parents took on the challenging but rewarding task of becoming foster parents during a pandemic, more seasoned foster parents like Gambrell had to adjust.

Creative care

Gambrell remembers sitting down at the kitchen table about three years ago with her husband Roger and telling him what she wanted to do.

“I told him that I really thought that I was called to mentor and lead children,” Gambrell said. “We thought foster care would be the greatest thing. It’s not the kid’s fault that they are taken away and placed somewhere. They need guidance, especially teenagers, during that formative period of their lives.”

After going through training, the Gambrells became foster parents for the first time two years ago. They have since adopted their first foster child, adding him to a family that already had two twin boys. Since then, the Gambrells, one of about 30 licensed foster care families in Rowan County, have fostered several other children ranging from 9 to 16 years of age. Currently, Gambrell is also fostering another 16-year old. 

Fostering a child that has endured some form of trauma poses challenges to care providers in normal times. When COVID-19 started, things got really complicated, especially when it came to treating a foster child’s trauma. 

Like many other forms of medicine, therapy went virtual during the pandemic. Since then, some therapists have begun seeing patients in person again. But that hasn’t made it easier to book an appointment.

“It is so hard. When we got our newest foster child, he had a lot of anxiety issues,” Gambrell said. “He needed help. I could see it immediately because I’ve had years of experience and training. I called his pediatrician and took him to his pediatrician and he couldn’t do anything at all to help him. He said all of the therapists are backed up due to COVID-19.”

After months of “begging,” Gambrell said that they finally were able to sneak him in for an appointment.

In the meantime, Gambrell has had to act as a therapist for her children. It’s a job she’s grown accustomed to.

“We have a lot of one-on-one conversations like we’ll go into his room whenever he’s having a bad day and we’ll have a one-on-one conversation,” Gambrell said. “I’ll pretty much be a therapist. I listen to him.”

In the past, school has provided much-needed structure for foster children, giving them a routine to stick to every day. When COVID-19 sent kids home in the spring, that too went away. Since then, most schools have moved to a hybrid in-person schedule.

“It’s very hard to keep them focused because they know that they’re at home,” Gambrell said. “They need that teacher to teach them and then that it falls back on me and my husband. We have to also be their tutors and help them through all their classwork, make sure that they do all their classwork. To be honest with you, sometimes it becomes very, very stressful.”

Now, Gambrell’s children only attend in-person schooling for two days. Fortunately for Gambrell, her job at Food Lion has allowed her to work from home so that she can better care for her children.

“Our foster parents are just like other parents out there, they’ve had to learn how to balance working from home but also being a teacher from home,” Stutts said. “Some of those have been real challenges for some of our foster families and even some of our staff.”

Stutts said that local daycares have stepped up to help out foster parents who haven’t been able to work from home.

“We’ve seen a lot of daycares that have extended what is typically their summer program indefinitely,” Stutts said. “We’ve got a lot of daycares that have hired educators on staff and have taken on foster youth. That’s been a real blessing. It really saved us from a crisis on how to educate children.”

Finding a way

Another major obstacle facing Gambrell, other foster children and Rowan County social workers has been arranging visits between children and their biological parents.

The visits, while they can bring up emotional trauma, are critical to maintaining relationships and working toward a permanent placement for a foster child.

“The visits are really important for ongoing connections, helping kids feel safe, knowing their parents are still there for them,” Ennis said. “Even though things might be a little bit different with the placement or a lot different with the placement, visits let the child know that their parents are still there and really care for them. That’s important for just psychological safety. It’s also important for parents to know that their children aren’t being kept from them, that with a safe, appropriate supervision process, that they are going to be able to have that contact that they need.”

In the spring, in-person visits were temporarily suspended for a time, forcing foster children to communicate with their biological parents via FaceTime or Zoom. Video visits were better than not having visits at all, but were difficult for smaller children, Stutts said.

Eventually, in-person visits did resume, but with less frequency and COVID-19 precautions in place. As opposed to holding three or four visits at the Rowan County Social Services office per day, Stutts said there may be one or two per day now. That leaves staff with enough time to sanitize the visitation room in between uses. Since visits occur less frequently now, Stutts said, they typically last for two hours instead of one.

When in-person visits began again, masks were still in high demand and also scarce. To ensure that foster children could meet with their parents face-to-face while following COVID-19 health protocols, Social Services office supervisor Carla Whaley sewed 300 masks by hand.

“We have utilized those masks extensively and I don’t know if our visitation program would have been able to move forward without Carla doing that,” Stutts said. “That was huge. We have such a wonderful staff that I don’t think they were going to let anything stop us from moving forward.”

Catching up

Even though the Social Services staff and foster care providers and parents have been able to sidestep and adapt to hurdles brought on by COVID-19, one unavoidable result of the pandemic has been a backup of the courts.

“Initially our courts were completely shut down for a number of weeks, which obviously had a huge impact on foster youth and achieving permanence,” Stutts said. “If courts stopped, we’re unable to achieve permanence.”

Permanence means a foster child is either reunited with their biological parent or parents or is adopted by a foster parent or sent to live with a relative. When courts were closed, that process was halted, causing the county’s foster caseload to temporarily “balloon,” Stutts said.

Courts began to reopen in June and since then have chipped away at the backlog of cases.

“We’re working through those backlog cases and we’re making really good progress,” Stutts said. “I will say that our local attorneys here and our courts and our judges and our legal unit specifically here are all very interested in moving cases along and are working really well together. We’re pretty happy with the progress that we’re making now under the current circumstances.”

Stutts said that the county will be back on track as far as foster case numbers go in only a few months.

Even though the foster care system isn’t poised to return to normal anytime soon, Social Services staff members and foster care parents have learned to adapt, becoming “heroes” in Ennis’ eyes.

“The reality is that our heroes are our foster care parents and kinship families who have said yes to taking care of a child,” Ennis said.

Gambrell may be stuck using video chats to conduct for the foreseeable future, but dealing with awkwardness is a small price to pay for making a difference in a foster child’s life.

The next information meeting regarding foster parenting is Dec. 1 at 5:30 p.m. at the Rowan County Department of Social Services office at 1813 E. Innes St. For more information, visit rowancountync.gov.

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