Vanessa Brunetta’s family was homeless for the first four years of her childhood. Her family was later so shaken by domestic violence that “my older brother and I spent most of the nights with a neighbor or locked ourselves in our room,” she says. When she was eight years old, she had been placed in foster care; in that first year she was run by four different foster families. By high school the number had grown to eight.
Vanessa was a star despite everything, even though she often felt “unseen, unheard and unimportant,” as she put it. She achieved a grade point average of 3.9 at Bishop’s School, one of the most prestigious private high schools in San Diego, and was admitted to the University of California at Los Angeles, the college with the highest number of applications in the United States. Your graduation from Bishop should be a real celebration.
Except, of course, that this story takes place in the age of COVID. As it turned out, there was no ceremony, no chance to go on stage for her foster family for the past three years, whom Vanessa had grown very fond of. Not a special moment with Laura, the court-appointed special lawyer (CASA) who had stood by her for eight years. In a young life full of chaos, even a little bit of normal shouldn’t be.
“Until I got involved in the system, I had no idea how the deck stacked up against these kids,” says Tod Mattox, Vanessa’s current foster father. “I spontaneously imagine that the first step is awareness of the topic.”
Invisible victims of the ravages of COVID-19 include the legions of foster children who have been exposed to basic services and support for months. Financial, emotional, educational, social, and even some basic housing issues have been pushed aside; the care system itself was overwhelmed by virus-related court closings and delays. Mental health care so important to young foster children has often been limited to phone calls or zoom meetings. Uncertainty about the future, always a reality in the system, became Coin of the empire.
In Chicago, the number of children being fostered rose 33 percent. Meanwhile, states like California, Kansas, and Florida saw a drop in reports of child abuse – a terrifying reminder of what can happen when the eyes are no longer alert. A CDC report also found fewer child abuse-related emergency rooms were held during the pandemic. “It doesn’t happen any less,” says Moisés Barón, CEO of the San Diego Center for Children. “There are only less mandated reporters who interact with the youth.”
In the area I live in, San Diego, the number of children being fostered has decreased by about 10 percent since last July, according to Stephen Moore. Chief Program Officer of Voices for Children, a nonprofit that supports foster children. For some experts, this is a direct indication that no domestic abuse has been reported during the reign of COVID. An Associated Press data analysis noted that 200,000 fewer child abuse and neglect investigations were reported during the pandemic – an 18 percent decrease from a year earlier.
Those numbers are expected to rise, says Moore, when the kids return to school this fall and become more involved with hired reporters, teachers, coaches, and therapists who are legally required to report abuse. “The concern is that with all the stress, job loss and pressure families are under, child abuse can be undocumented,” added Moore. “Family financial insecurity has been shown to be linked to abuse in previous work.”
The past year has also taken a heavy emotional and mental toll on the foster children. Without contact with their biological siblings or families, often without any sense of support, they have experienced increasing levels of anxiety, depression, and feelings of isolation, says Baron. “If we look at the pandemic as a community trauma … our foster youth has really been hit harder because of the vulnerability they have already experienced and their history of trauma and developmental challenges.”
In one John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY) study of about 600 people aged 18 to 24 who were either fostered or homeless, four out of five said COVID had a major impact on their mental health and wellbeing , while 27 percent said they felt “down, depressed, or hopeless” almost every day since the pandemic began. A CDC report last November, meanwhile, found a 24 percent increase in mental emergencies in children ages five to 11 and a 31 percent increase in teens ages 12 to 17.
This is the challenge that CASA volunteers and the many social workers and child advocates who support them step into. In San Diego, Voices for Children CASA volunteers work with foster children in courts, schools and homes. “Having the reassuring presence of someone you know and trust is sometimes invaluable for children in such challenging and stressful circumstances,” says Moore.
The Proponents had to find creative ways to virtually engage foster children, including assisting with tools and accessing distance learning. It’s a huge problem: According to the JBAY survey, 100 percent of California students said the pandemic had a negative impact on their education. More than a quarter said they no longer attended classes; one in eight has dropped out of school completely.
Therapy is common for foster children, Moore says, but the past year has seen a sharp decline in access to such services, an issue we have repeated with many groups across the country. With due mention of telehealth services, the loss of personal therapy and human contact is critical for foster children.
“I think these kids are amazing to have someone who really tries to see them,” said Kelly Douglas, CEO of Voices for Children. In April the CASAs were able to go on personal excursions again, arrange visits to siblings, eat ice cream – mostly being “present and available”, as the CASA volunteer Tim put it.
Last fall, Vanessa Brunetta enrolled at UCLA with the goal of doubling sociology and communication. She became one of only about 600 students living on campus as part of the school’s emergency shelter for those with nowhere else to go. Occasionally banned by COVID restrictions, “it kind of reminded me of the emotional impact of being in nursing homes where I felt like people were physically around me but I was alone,” she says. She worries about how she can afford food and she misses the company companion her foster family in high school.
“Foster children lack parents, really a stable family unit,” Vanessa told me. At college level, that can mean there is no home for vacation or summer vacation, no one to help change tires or open a savings account. It can also mean critical [no one] to speak when the going gets tough. “Sometimes,” she says, “we just need someone who only scolds, who understands.”
Nevertheless, her story is an almost perfect one, a CASA success. According to national statistics, only 15 percent of foster children attend college. “Vanessa is a daredevil, nothing stands in her way,” says Laura, her advocate.
Barón sees a need for more initiative in the overall care situation, be it academic or mental health, and he includes “having the resources to help families become more stable in their home environment”. and adds, “We know early detection and intervention make a big difference.” Several stimulus laws passed during the pandemic, including the American Rescue Plan Act, provide funding for youth mental health, education and nutrition, among other things.
In the meantime, the next step is to advocate for foster children or become a CASA volunteer. “It can only take one caring person in a child’s life to help them overcome the trauma,” says Douglas. After a year of COVID-19, this need is more acute than ever.
To learn more about how to become a CASA Volunteer, click here.
This is an opinion and analysis article; the views of the views Author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.