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Parents Seeking Return of Children First Must Forge Connections on Screens

The city's Administration For Children's Services headquarters in lower Manhattan.
The city’s Administration For Children’s Services headquarters in lower Manhattan.
Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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For parents with children in foster care, seeing their kids is both closer and further away than before the coronavirus upended families in New York and beyond.

Closer, because child welfare agencies say they’re redoubling efforts to reunify families, whether permanently or on an extended trial basis.

Further, because the supervised meetings between kids and their birth families that are stepping stones to reunification have been relegated to video — where parents say they’re hard-pressed to parent.

“I feel like I can’t be a mother,” said one Brooklyn mom, who asked that her name not be used because her court case is still pending.

She said that in the months before the pandemic struck she was able to have weekend visits with her toddler son. The two would watch movies or play with her Chihuahua, Rip.

“There’s only so much I can do with a two-year-old through a camera,” she said.

In March, as New York began to shut down, another mother, in The Bronx, said a child welfare agency presented her with a choice: She could have her regular visits with her child on Skype, or not at all.

She had been seeing her three-year-old in-person for three hours twice a week, during the eight months or so the child was in foster care.

“It upset me and it confused me,” she said. “Like, I get it — there’s a pandemic happening. But then it’s like, crazy to me, because I’m always there with my daughter. I’m able to hold her, I’m able to interact with her. And you can’t really do that through video chat.”

It didn’t help that the computer her kid’s foster family used was glitchy.

“Honestly, it’s not parenting at all,” she added. “Because I’m not there physically. You have to have a physical interaction with your child. Technology is a barrier.”

Parents of thousands of children in the care of the city’s Administration for Children’s Services have had to settle for screen time. But with that contact comes the prospect of getting their kids back home sooner rather than later — as the Bronx parent recently did.

Getting Kids Home

At the behest of the Administration for Children’s Services, child welfare agencies have been identifying children whose parents are primed to take them back home.

While many child welfare hearings have been suspended with Family Courts largely on lockdown, ACS is reaching agreements with parents and their attorneys, and submitting them for judges’ sign-off, a spokesperson confirmed.

But some attorneys working with parents looking to get their kids back has its own challenges, heightened by the coronavirus.

At the Bronx Defenders, which is working with the Bronx mother, efforts to reunify families are sometimes cut short by an agency’s insistence that a parent have a longer track record of supervised visits with caseworkers and sessions with therapists and counselors.

The pandemic has also had a significant impact on access to services — like mental health and substance use treatment — that parents are sometimes ordered to undergo to reunify with their children. Much of this counseling has also gone digital, or is conducted via phone, advocates said.

“We are desperately trying to reunify families like every which way because we know that the barriers to contact and inability to access phones, and technology, and the resources people need right now — that’s real and deep,” said Caitlin Becker, who runs the social work practice at the Bronx Defenders.

Missing Money

Without the right tech for “visits” with their kids, parents are at a disadvantage.

ACS stressed in guidance to foster care agencies that “it is especially important that staff and families have access to technology so they can stay informed and maintain communication during the COVID-19 emergency” — but has not purchased these tools for families navigating the system.

That responsibility falls on the agencies contracted by ACS, which manage day-to-day needs of the families they work with. These providers should “purchase technology for staff, youth, parents and foster parents when needed to facilitate video and phone communication, including virtual casework contacts and visits,” ACS told providers.

The agencies would get paid back by the city, they were promised.

They have yet to be reimbursed, said Ron Richter, chief executive of the Brooklyn-based agency JCCA. “Each agency is managing this independently.”

“We are all using our own sources to secure the technology that we need for our families,” Richter, a former ACS commissioner, told THE CITY.

Chanel Caraway, an ACS spokesperson, said that the agency is in regular contact with provider agencies to ensure families have devices for remote visits and video conferences.

Officials at ACS are “working closely with agency staff to ensure that children and families continue to receive the support they need during this public health crisis,” said spokesperson Chanel Caraway in an emailed statement.

The Mayor’s Office of Contract services, which is handling the reimbursements, did not respond to a request for comment.

Caraway also said that by the end of April, 100% of public school students in foster care who had requested a device for remote learning by April 23 had received one through the Department of Education.

That doesn’t help those with younger children.

Bonding Needed

Even before COVID-19 reached New York City, limiting the capacity of courts and shuttering meeting places, the process of connecting for family visits was not perfect, parents and their lawyers said.

“Video visits, particularly with young children are not going to be sufficient,” said Tricia Stephens, a professor at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College who studies the implications of exposure to trauma, primarily for families involved with the child welfare system.

“There is no substitute, especially for younger children, with the physical contact, the in-person bonding.”

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