When the pandemic first struck the community, it was a frightening and uncertain time for all.
For some CHD foster parents, it meant navigating ‘the new normal’ and having to choose whether they would continue being an active home for children and adolescents. Some had to make the difficult decision to take a step back and become a temporarily ‘inactive’ home—one that is still licensed but not currently taking placements, whether it be due to compromised health of foster parents or another reason.
For CHD’s foster care team, it meant having to get especially creative in order to continue support for foster parents for an array of existing needs as well as those that emerged due to COVID-19. And it also meant a reconfiguration of how they would train new foster parents.
For kids and teens in foster care, it meant adjusting to all kinds of changes: from virtual learning and, for some, virtual visits with biological families, to new ways of doing just about everything.
These challenges demanded a new level of creativity from CHD’s foster care staff, while also demanding a new level of resilience for foster parents and youth as they adjusted, too. Below are some of the ways foster parents and foster care staff worked to continue support in their respective roles, and their hopes as they look toward the future.
Navigating Emerging Needs
“In the beginning, a lot our foster parents were struggling with technology as more parts of everyday life became virtual,” explained CHD Homefinding Team Leader Yamilca Nogue.
Identifying this need, Nogue worked to add another layer of support to that which the foster care team provides to its parents. She began recording video tutorials to help foster parents learn how to use Zoom and other platforms.
“For a while, many parent-child visits were also happening through Zoom. Everything was online, and more than half of our parents had expressed they were facing challenges with the technology,” Nogue said. “We were really trying to be as creative as we could be to help provide additional support in any way possible or any way that was needed.”
In addition to her day-to-day work, Nogue also serves as Event Coordinator for CHD’s MaryAnne’s Kids (MAK) Fund, a special fund designed to support foster youth in pursuing special interests, like music, dance and extra-curricular education, or help with other needs as they emerge.
When foster youth began learning from home full time, or in hybrid formats, MAK helped cover necessities that foster youth would need. Through MAK, Nogue and the team helped provide youth with items like desks for dedicated learning space, computers for those who needed them, and other materials like backpacks and headphones.
Support through Connection
Before the pandemic, the foster care team hosted a foster parent support group—in English biweekly and in Spanish monthly—where foster parents can connect with one another over their shared experiences and hear insights from their peers.
But when COVID-19 began to impact the community, staff quickly realized how much of a positive impact the support groups were having amid the new normal. They began hosting virtual support groups more frequently, and the high attendance in those groups has shown that it’s been a welcome and positive adjustment.
Early on, one of the main topics of these groups centered on the switch to remote learning. In some homes, foster parents may have their own children, who may go to different schools than the youth they’re fostering. In such cases, foster parents needed to adjust to multiple new schedules and styles of learning in order to provide support to each child under their roof. This factor, coupled with changes and challenges that foster parents faced in their own lives or careers, was one area where many foster parents sought to connect with their peers to learn about their experiences and approaches.
“Our foster parents are working with children and adolescents who have significant trauma histories, while also managing their own lives,” said Assistant Program Director Jennifer Pierce. “In general we work to provide our foster parents with a lot of support. Once the pandemic started, suddenly foster parents were dealing with not only the unique needs of foster youth but also the changes in their own lives in regard to their jobs, their children’s lives with regard to school and activities. We used a lot of flexibility and creativity in order to help meet their unique needs.”
When in-person visits between foster children and biological families resumed, this became another important topic for their support groups. As some children began once again visiting members of their family, and then returning to their foster home during the pandemic, many CHD foster parents discussed ideas for how to work through their concerns and any challenges this switch presented.
Having that space to connect and share experiences with fellow foster parents was a major support for many, especially during difficult times. It’s but one example of ways CHD’s foster care team adapts to meet the needs of parents and youth. The team also provides support to foster families as they help children cope with issues of trauma and abandonment, including 24-hour on-call support, as well as counseling to help with mental health, too.
Resilience and Hope
In their work, CHD’s foster care team are no strangers to adaptation. As each child they help place in a caring home has a unique history, the level of care and support the team helps provide is adapted and individualized accordingly. That adaptability is a skillset they’ve expertly tapped into through COVID-19, too.
Now over a year into the pandemic, they’ve persisted through each new challenge, whether they needed to transition to virtual settings or don personal protective equipment (PPE) to continue their work still taking place in person.
“The work that staff have done has been exceptional. They’ve done an amazing job getting through this, teasing out the best techniques and identifying struggles in order to support foster parents,” said Program Director Rhonda Young. “Across the [Children and Families] division, a lot of programs continued working in-person, and we had to learn how to do so safely and adjust—with a lot of PPE and a lot of discussions to support staff in their own level of comfort. Our caseworkers have been amazing, and so have our foster parents.”
And what has especially made their work possible in the face of such challenge, the foster care team affirms, is the enduring cooperation and commitment of foster parents.
In addition to caring for foster youth, sometimes 24/7 during many stages of the pandemic, foster parents very actively communicate with CHD to make sure kids are going to their scheduled visits and their appointments. On top of their other duties, they also consistently work to maintain their homes following compliance standards so they continue to provide care and a safe, stable home environment for foster youth. Given these simultaneously occurring pressures, foster parents have also adapted expertly to continue providing the best level of care possible for foster youth.
“The resiliency and flexibility of our foster parents has far exceeded any expectation that we had at the beginning of the pandemic. Far,” Piece said. “Our foster parents have been amazing; I can’t say that strongly enough. Our foster parents really are superheroes.”
Looking to the Future
Especially in the early days, the impact of the pandemic created some detours in how CHD’s foster care team would bring in and train new foster parents.
After a brief pause, the team transitioned training to an online format for individuals who applied for the role prior to COVID-19. Over eight weeks, new foster parents participated in a six hour virtual training once a week in order to thoroughly prepare them to take on the role, during which they are educated on a range of topics, including positive parenting and discipline, mental health and psychiatric diagnoses and more. Now, the team is pleased to be welcoming eight new parents into their fold, who will be able to open their homes to foster youth in the next few months.
This forthcoming addition of new foster homes is not the only positive change, however. As more and more people in the community gain access to the COVID-19 vaccine and continue other protective measures, many seem to be feeling more comfortable—and hopeful—in edging toward normalcy.
“We’ve seen a really positive change recently,” Nogue said. “While I can’t yet say for certain whether that’s because of the availability of the vaccine, I can say that within the last few months a lot of foster parents who had ‘inactive’ homes have decided to reactivate their homes once again and accept new placements.”
In addition to vaccine access, many school districts have moved toward resuming in-person learning, and many are also resuming in-person work. With these positive changes, the team is hopeful that things are moving in a very positive direction for everyone.
“The pandemic has been very stressful for all of us, but especially so for foster parents and foster youth,” Pierce said. “As the vaccine becomes more readily available, it’s my hope that we’ll soon be able to return to normalcy.”