Bioethics Forum Essay
On Being a Foster Parent During Covid
I became licensed as a foster parent last year. I wanted to help parents who needed an extra hand to get back on track to reunifying with their child or care for a child who was maltreated and might not be reunited with their birth parents. I also wanted to gain insights into my current area of research on resiliency and equity in early childhood development. I knew that being a foster parent would be demanding, but I was unprepared for the extent of the challenges, which were exacerbated by the pandemic.
After opening my home to a toddler, I immediately had to find childcare. Luckily, every state receives funds from the federal government to support childcare assistance programs. In Wisconsin, where I live, foster children are eligible for childcare subsidies, and many childcare centers give preferential placement to foster children. However, those subsidies don’t always cover full-time childcare fees. The average subsidy for preschoolers in Milwaukee County is about $920 per month and the average market rate for childcare is over $1,000 per month, plus fees for everything from wipes and diapers to meals and snacks provided at a childcare facility. The $80-plus gap can be difficult for foster parents to cover, since most have modest household incomes, lower than the national mean for households with children. A number of foster parent bloggers have written that foster care reimbursement barely covers the everyday needs of a child in an out-of-home placement, let alone the gap in childcare coverage.
The gap for childcare expenses widened when Covid-19 flared and the safer-at-home orders went into effect. With no childcare, I morphed into a single stay-at-home mother of a child who, despite being exceptionally well behaved, required constant supervision. I still had to be an ethicist on-call, a researcher with ongoing studies, and a teacher to doctoral students.
We’ve all seen the funny parodies of endless video conferences, especially cute interruptions by little kids, but this humor hides a harsh reality that is the inequity of childcare, especially for foster parents. While over 60% of foster parents are married, only 31% of foster parents are employed full-time, and nearly 30% are single women. Women’s work is underpaid and under-acknowledged. During the pandemic foster parents have become full-time caregivers who are not being fully compensated for this service. Some licensing agencies increased the reimbursement amount to their foster families through a repurposing of Title IV-E funds, but these increases varied from state to state. While the federal government allots funds to states to provide financial assistance to low-income families to pay for childcare, those funds cannot be used for the parents who become full-time childcare providers. Older foster children might have had access to school lessons but legally still must be fully supervised by an adult. Many children in out-of-home placement have significant behavioral, medical, and psychiatric needs, which are going unmet because of Covid-19 and closures of outpatient facilities, as well as the loss of speech, occupation, and physical therapists seeing the children at school.
Despite food assistance provided to foster children from various sources, foster parents and their children are at risk of food security. Most foster children are eligible for free and reduced lunches through the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. With Covid-19 closing schools, many districts sponsored meal pick-ups from a neighborhood school. In Wisconsin, children who might not have previously received food assistance, became eligible for temporary food benefits during the pandemic. However, these benefits are insufficient for most foster parents because of their modest household incomes. Anecdotal evidence from foster and adoptive social media posts suggests that food some foster families are struggling to put food on the table. For example, in mid-April I received an email from my licensing agency with Covid-19 updates. In the list of resources was the suggestion to “Use this map to find a food pantry near you.” I was astonished, mad, sad, and mad again. Not only were foster parents making a home for a child in need, providing 24/7 care, arranging weekly virtual visits with biological parents to work towards reunification, but foster families were at risk of going hungry.
What perplexes me the most about the situation is the abject silence from both state child welfare agencies and foster parents themselves. The foster care system is incredibly fractured, with not only state-by-state bureaucratic differences but often county-by-county interpretations of fair allocation of limited resources. This inconsistency in the foster care system makes it difficult for a foster parent to navigate, and many are unwilling to ask too many questions. We worry that if we complain too much, the child in our care may be relocated.
While pandemics are a rare occurrence, this pandemic has highlighted major injustices in the foster care sphere of the child welfare system. There are a lot of opinions about the proper role of foster parents as conduits for reunification or rescuers of children from abusive homes. These are not helpful dichotomies. Foster parents are filling a void left by dysfunction and trauma and they themselves are forced to live with that dysfunction and relive their child’s trauma daily.
We need earlier parenting interventions to avoid unnecessary child removals. Foster parents need to feel safe airing concerns. We need a more robust childcare system. We need advocates who can speak across state lines about common barriers to successful out-of-home placements and reunification. Foster parents do not need to hear they are doing good work (though sending a card would be nice gesture); they need to see hands-on support through training, respite, and fewer bureaucratic hoops. They must be fairly compensated for the care they are providing. With 440,000 children in the foster care system and 2.7 million children in kinship care (cared for by relatives or close family friends), we need better public policy and public support for those who open their homes to children in need.
Mary Homan, DrPH, MA, MSHCE, is an assistant professor at the Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities Institute for Health & Equity at the Medical College of Wisconsin. Her research focuses on maternal and child health.
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