By Hannah Adams
Whitesburg, KY — This story was originally produced and published by the Appalachian Media Institute. Listen to the story (above) or read the transcript (below), which has been edited for clarity and length.
The state of Kentucky recently reached an all-time high of 10,000 children in the foster care system. For years, the system has been increasingly overwhelmed. And then … coronavirus hit the United States.
And suddenly, everything changed.
ALEXIA: “As far as I can tell, they're still being pretty strict with trying to make sure that everything that can happen virtually regarding foster children does happen virtually."
That’s Alexia Ault, a single foster parent who has seen the many impacts of the pandemic on the foster care system. I've also seen these impacts firsthand. My mother, Malena Adams, was in the process of adopting our second foster placement when the pandemic began.
MALENA: "We only found out a week before adoption day that no, this adoption is not going to happen, all the dockets have been cleared, and it was really devastating.”
We were able to reschedule the adoption to be held on a Zoom call, but then storms knocked out power across eastern Kentucky, and we had to adjust again.
MALENA: “On adoption day, we ended up going to the Walmart parking lot, got on our Zoom call. And even the judge, he was like, 'My secretaries told me what all is going on at your house. Where exactly are you all for this phone call?' he said. 'Because I can tell you're in a vehicle.' And I was like, 'We're sitting in the Walmart parking lot!' And he laughed so hard and he was like, 'Times have really changed, we're all just doing the best that we can,' he said. 'Just glad that you all could actually do this.' ”
The pandemic is impacting both biological and foster parents in a variety of ways. Many parents who worked outside of the home are now living double-lives, attempting to balance work and family responsibilities at the same time.
ALEXIA: "I told a friend I felt like I could either be a good mother or I could be a good employee, but I couldn't do both. And so, there were days when I just focused on what [my foster child] needed. And there were days when I had grant deadlines to do and I had conference calls, and he was just watching PBS a lot."
Unfortunately, working from home is not an option for all parents. In a region that’s already lacking in local child care services, the pandemic has brought many difficult decisions for eastern Kentucky parents who are essential workers.
MALENA: "Some parents I know are choosing just to completely isolate themselves from their children. That would have to be a very hard decision to make. But it's also a hard decision to make ... working full-time, to come home in the afternoons and possibly have that chance that I've brought something home."
As states begin to remove restrictions and the rate of cases continue to rise, there is much concern for the future of the foster care system and the well-being of children in need.
MALENA: "There are so many people right now that are afraid to do foster parenting because they're afraid of bringing a child into a home that possibly has been exposed to COVID. So I don't think a lot of people right now are thinking, 'Okay this is the perfect time for me to be a foster parent, when it probably is.' "
What does months of quarantine and isolation mean for children stuck in possibly dangerous and unhealthy living environments?
ALEXIA: "A lot of the mandatory reporters, like doctors and teachers and other public servants, aren't seeing these kids regularly, so they aren't reporting it and kids aren't coming into care."
MALENA: "I hope I'm wrong, but I say that when all of this is over with, we're going to see an increase in the amount of kids who go into care, and unfortunately, I'm afraid we won't see the increase that we need in the people who are becoming foster parents."
What will the future of foster care look like following the pandemic?
ALEXIA: "I think quarantine has been an opportunity for self-reflection. An opportunity just to be quiet. And I think the stress that we've seen with this pandemic is not going to disappear. This virus isn't going to disappear. And even after we get a vaccine, the effects of this pandemic are going to last. They're going to be seen in foster children. They're going to be seen in single parents and biological families. It's going to take a while to recover from this."