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The Impact of the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency on Families Involved with the Child Welfare System

While the COVID-19 public health emergency has affected all families, its impact on child-welfare-involved families is unprecedented. These families have faced increased trauma from suspensions on in-person family time as well as added barriers to reunification. 

Family Time

In March 2020, the New Jersey Department of Children and Families (DCF) suspended all in-person visits between parents and children in foster care, a moratorium that remained in effect until July 8, 2020. While DCF’s intention was to protect the health of children, parents, resource families, and the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCPP) and service provider staff, the suspension of in-person parenting time caused unjustifiable trauma to children and families and slowed the reunification process. Additionally, given that New Jersey has a significant overrepresentation of Black children in the foster care system, the suspension disproportionately affected Black families and communities.

Parents attempted to spend time with their children through virtual platforms such as FaceTime and Zoom, but virtual visitation requires parents to have access to smartphones, computers, or other forms of technology as well as a stable WiFi connection. The majority of families involved with the child welfare system live in poverty, and families without technology access went months without seeing their children. Virtual visitation is especially difficult for parents with young children who do not understand why they are seeing their parents through a screen, or have a hard time staying engaged for more than a few minutes. DCF allowed in-person visitation to resume in July 2020, but it did not call for additional family time to make up for the gap. 

Access to Services

The public health emergency has also limited child-welfare-involved families’ access to court-mandated services like therapy and parenting classes. These services have been moved to virtual platforms and as a result, parents without access to technology or stable WiFi have faced added challenges to participation. When parents cannot access the services included in their case plans, reunification is delayed.

A letter issued by the Administration for Children, Youth, and Families in April 2020 allows the purchase of cell phones for children, parents, and foster parents under Title IV-B and/or the John H. Chafee Foster Care Program for Successful Transition to Adulthood if such access helps facilitate participation in program services and case management. Parents should be able to obtain such technology if it is needed to access services and complete their case plans.

Other Poverty-Related Barriers

In addition to challenges specific to the child welfare system, many families are facing increased poverty as a result of the pandemic and are at risk of having their children removed for poverty- related reasons that are mislabeled as neglect. For example, homelessness and housing instability often result in removals even if parents were not harming or neglecting their children.

Another challenge faced by families living in poverty is difficulty accessing welfare programs. Due to job losses, many families have been forced to depend on these programs as their primary sources of income during the public health emergency. Since March 2020, welfare offices have been closed and understaffed, making it difficult for families to apply for the programs they need to pay rent, buy food, and meet their families’ daily needs. Barriers to accessing welfare programs have led to removals and delayed reunification for child-welfare-involved families. Additionally, families living in poverty and families of color are more likely to have household members who are essential workers, which has increased their risks of exposure to COVID-19 infection.

What are my rights?

Before filing a petition for termination of parental rights, DCPP is required to make “reasonable efforts” to reunify children with their parents. DCPP must help you access the services in your case plan, address the factors that resulted in removal, and overcome the additional barriers resulting from the COVID-19 public health emergency. Depending on your situation, this could mean that DCPP must help you access mental health or substance use disorder treatment, secure stable housing, or apply to welfare programs. If you have questions or concerns about your rights during a child welfare case, contact LSNJ’s Family Representation Project by completing our online hotline application or by calling 1-888-LSNJ-LAW (1-888-576-5529). ​​​

5/21/2021