SEATTLE – Leroy Pascubillo missed his daughter’s first step, her first word and countless other valuable milestones. After being born addicted to heroin, she was placed with a foster family and he anxiously counted the days between visits as he tried to regain custody. But because of the pandemic, visits declined and went virtual, and he could only watch his daughter – too young to engage through the computer – try to crawl through the screen.

They are among thousands of families across the country whose reunions became tangled in the care system as courts delayed, virtualized, or temporarily closed cases, according to an Associated Press analysis of child protection data from 34 states.

The decline in children leaving foster care means families are staying longer in a system that is supposed to be temporary because key services have been shut down or restricted. Vulnerable families suffer long-term and potentially irreversible harm, experts say, that could leave parents with weakened bonds with their children.

The AP’s analysis found that at least 8,700 fewer reunions were reunited in the first few months of the pandemic compared to March-December last year – a 16% decrease. The assumptions also decreased – according to the analysis by 23%. Overall, compared to 2019, at least 22,600 fewer children left foster families.

“Everyone needed extra help and no one got extra help,” said Shawn Powell, coordinator of the Parents for Parents program in King County, Washington.

Like many parts of the country, King County suspended almost all hearings other than emergency ordinances for months, resulting in child relocation being prioritized over family reunification, triggered by child protection reports or other warning signs. The assumptions slowed down to a trickle. The services required for reunification – psychiatric examinations, random drug testing, group therapy, counseling, housing assistance, and public transport to access these services – were also limited.

In the case of foster children, even doctor appointments need to be approved by a judge, and frustrated lawyers say things are as routine as they were concerned.

During the period studied in AP’s analysis, the overall foster population declined by an overall 2% – likely due to the sharp decline in reports of child abuse and neglect, which normally begin the process of removing a child from a home.

National data shows that the average foster stay is around 20 months, which means that the children were hardest hit in the first few months of the pandemic, well before the pandemic in foster care.

Those in need of care are disproportionately colored children and come from poor families, as national data show. These groups tend to have more exposure to social services charged with reporting potential abuse and neglect, meaning that the pandemic has heightened the challenges of not only poor parenting but also parenting in poverty.

“The systemic problems related to racism and poverty with COVID and how people are treated in the child welfare system can get worse,” said Sharon Vandivere of the national think tank Child Trends, who noted that long foster stays are and are inherently traumatic Reunions less likely. “It was bad before and it probably made it worse.”

For DY, a black teenager who lives in a group home near Seattle, the pandemic has heightened loneliness and isolation in the care of child protection services. He has been outside of his mother’s custody since 2016 after an abuse report found she physically disciplined her children. He had visits with her in the years that followed, and lawyers expected his mother to regain custody and DY to go home in the fall of 2020. Then the pandemic rocked his case and life.

Due to new COVID-19 protocols and a lack of staff, limited privileges in the institutional group home have already been reduced or revoked. Personal visits to his mother ended. Group activities have all but disappeared. Inside, he resented wearing a mask and constantly washing his hands. Whenever fear of exposure occurred in the residential facility, he and others had to be quarantined.

When he returned to his personal school, he hoped the officers would find it safe to see his mother again – but that did not happen for months. He watched helplessly as his sister – who was staying with relatives at the beginning of the pandemic and had one case further in the system – was brought back to her mother last summer. DY was happy for her, but he wants the same thing: try his mother’s kitchen, make eggs in his own kitchen, sit on the couch with his family without masks.

“I still want her to babysit me,” the 13-year-old boy said of his mother, who refused to comment on this story while the DY and third child cases remain active. “I can say that she has great faith in when I will get home. I don’t know if it will happen any more. “

The AP does not name DY, but refers to him by the initials used in his lawsuit against the Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families. The lawsuit accuses the state of providing inadequate care because DY had 50 internships before the pandemic and placed him in a motel or in the agency’s office building for a few days. The state declined to comment on his case and lawsuit.

But Frank Ordway, chief of staff for the state children’s welfare agency, blamed the shutdown of the court system for the decline in reunions, and urged those that haven’t fully reopened to prioritize cases like DY’s.

“When these systems don’t work, these families and these children stay in limbo,” Ordway said. “Our job as an agency is to keep these families together and bring them together. Not being able to do so because of the pandemic was a painful experience. “

King County Supreme Court commissioner Nicole Wagner, a presiding judge in the family court system, said court staff, lawyers, social workers and counselors did their best but no one knew how to address unprecedented issues in the pandemic. For example, she said she wanted face-to-face visits for children but could not instruct preconditioned social workers to monitor them when required by law.

Wagner said she hoped the lessons from the pandemic will help redefine how the system supports already struggling families in the reunification process.

“It’s scary, it’s overwhelming, it’s scary. And it’s about the most important thing in your life: your children, ”said Wagner. “I have no doubt that 100% of the pandemic hit the more vulnerable populations disproportionately.”

Illinois was the only state where there has been an increase in the number of foster family exits. Others in AP’s analysis confirmed a significant decrease, but said that each care case among the numbers has unique circumstances.

For example, during the pandemic, many states provided assistance to those on the verge of aging out of state care. This policy change effectively protected young people in foster families from being thrown out of their living conditions if they still needed a place to stay, but it also had an impact on the number of those in need of care.

Connecticut – which saw one of the largest declines in exits, at 36% – waited until May 2021 to fully return to face-to-face visits, which serve as a key metric to assess whether parents are ready, caring and custody for their children to regain.

The state “has never stopped serving children and families, and we have found that doing some of our work virtually is both more efficient and in some cases preferred by our customers,” said a spokesman for the Ministry for Children and Families from Connecticut in a statement.

Leroy Pascubillo, now 51, had used drugs over the course of four decades but said he began working toward sobriety immediately after his daughter was born in February 2019.

The court took him to the only drug rehabilitation center in the Seattle area that allows children to stay with their fathers. He had a couple of personal visits to his daughter each week and was told that if he could get through the initial stages of the program, she could see him in March 2020 while he completes treatment. The pandemic has turned that plan on its head.

“You start building this relationship and then it’s taken away and you try to start all over again,” he said. It was all the more painful that he knew that his now 2 year old daughter had no contact with her mother either. Pascubillo said she did not participate in the custody case and that the AP cannot reach her.

When the courts began retrying existing cases, government and community services helped Pascubillo get back together with his daughter, complete rehab, and secure an apartment in Seattle. He wants to work as a parenting guard to help other fathers find their way back to their children. He’s still crying over the time he’s lost and the four month delay in reuniting with his daughter.

“It felt like 40 years. I thought she forgot about me. But as soon as I looked at her and sang ‘Baby, Baby, Baby’, she started kicking like she was in the womb, ”said Pascubillo. “We have this bond.”

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Fassett reported from Santa Cruz, California and is a corps member of the Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a not-for-profit national utility that places journalists on local newsrooms to cover undercover issues.

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