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Even a contentious relationship with the foster parents of her child did not prepare Laura Miller for what happened in mid-March.
Miller got an email from the state social worker handling the case involving her 10-year-old daughter, Sterling. The foster parents had obtained a letter from a pediatrician recommending that Miller’s twice-a-week visits with her daughter be cut off, and the state agreed.
The reason? The growing coronavirus pandemic.
About a week after calling off Miller’s visits, Hawaii halted all face-to-face visits between parents and their children in foster care. In Hawaii, as in many other states, parents like Miller are left to fret about their children’s well-being during the pandemic and setbacks in their efforts to become a family again.
These parents face a range of allegations that led the state to remove the child from the home, from outright abuse and neglect, to drug use, domestic abuse witnessed by the child or any psychological or “threatened” harm as determined on a case-by-case basis. In most instances, the state’s goal after taking custody is to reunite biological parents with their children.
A federal agency that oversees state child protection operations has discouraged blanket bans on foster care visits, calling on officials to instead look into ways to maintain the parental bond and stay on track for eventual reunification.
But in Hawaii and other states, officials have concluded that staunching the coronavirus comes first, and shifted all visits to virtual.
The state Department of Human Services took action in Miller’s case, even before imposing the statewide ban, after getting the letter from Sterling’s pediatrician.
While the foster family was taking precautions to maintain social distancing, the pediatrician wrote, it was “unclear” that Miller was. And as Sterling had survived leukemia, “I believe that extra precautions should always be taken,” the doctor wrote.
Miller says neither the case worker nor the foster parents asked her if she had been following COVID-19 guidelines, which she says she was. Yet the case worker said that while the pandemic continued, Miller would be limited to four FaceTime visits a week.
It seemed a harsh measure to Miller, who strongly contests the state’s grounds for taking custody of her child in the first place, and says she has never been accused of abusing her. The state would not provide Civil Beat any information on her case.
“I just started crying immediately,” Miller recalled. “And then I was especially offended that they’re going to say that I couldn’t handle extra coronavirus precautions, but I’m the one who got her through cancer and chemo.”
She sees the statewide ban as extreme.
“There would be a way for me to see her,” Miller said, if the foster parents allowed a visit in their front yard, say. “But nobody wants to work anything out. They just shut everything down.”
Jennifer Chapman got the word via text on April 2. She had just reestablished visitation with her two sons in foster care, ages 2 years and 11 months. But visits would now be conducted via Zoom, and Chapman would be allowed to communicate with the boys once a week, on Wednesday morning.
The visit might last as long as 15 to 30 minutes, she was told, depending on how long the boys could “tolerate” the video chat. That would fall far short of the three hours a week she had been promised in court.
The foster mother did a good job of getting the boys to interact, putting them in their highchairs and giving them things to play with on their tray tables while they talked. But the visit ended early, Chapman said, because the foster mother had set an alarm to remind her that the older boy was scheduled to try to use the potty.
At least that was an improvement over the state’s first plan, she said.
“At first I was told that I could record something for them and leave it on some online portal and they would show it to the kids and then in response would record something and leave it on the website for me to see,” she said.
Chapman has no idea when things will got back to what passed for normal before the coronavirus. She alleges that her husband made false accusations to get the kids put in foster care so Chapman would not leave the state. But the court dates during which she would have tried to regain custody have all been canceled.
“I understand it from both sides and this need for safety and everything,” she said. “But legally, the way the whole system is set up, it’s completely violating everybody’s rights and it’s ruining the child-parent relationship to be kept from them this long.”
In its March 27 letter, the federal Children’s Bureau, part of the Department of Health & Human Services, discouraged family court judges from imposing blanket orders to suspend parent’s visits with children in foster care.
“Family time is important for child and parent well-being, as well as for efforts toward reunification,” according to the letter from Associate Commissioner Jerry Milner. “Family time is especially important during times of crisis.”
Milner called on judges to hold child welfare agencies accountable for ensuring that meaningful visits still occurred, to investigate ways to do them safely, such as outdoors, and to guarantee that if face-to-face visits were impossible, parents had the technology to do them electronically.
Milner also encouraged child protection agencies and judges to speed up reunification with biological parents if the child’s safety was not jeopardized.
In Hawaii, the human services department had to balance that advice with what it was hearing from state leaders about the importance of minimizing physical contact, said DHS spokeswoman Amanda Stevens.
“Generally, there is no substitute for in-person visits for children and families,” Stevens wrote in an email, “but given the COVID-19 pandemic, it is necessary and prudent to balance the best practice of in-person visitation with the protection of children, families, staff, and the community at large.”
Stevens said the state had so far received few complaints from biological parents — most, she said, just want their children to be safe inside. When parents lack access to Zoom, she said, the department provides them the technological means to use FaceTime.
Most other states and counties have come to the same conclusion as Hawaii and shut down visits, said Irene Clements, executive director of the National Foster Parent Association. In fact, she has yet to hear of a single one that hasn’t.
And while she understands the reasoning, Clements also recognizes the importance of the parent-child connections cited by the Children’s Bureau.
“Whether it be their parents or grandma and grandpa or siblings or whoever it is, you know that the whole well-being of each of those individuals falls on their ability to connect with one another, and connecting by seeing is different than connecting by touch and smell and all of that …
“These children, they know what their momma smells like. I don’t care how little they are.”
At the same time, Clements recognizes the logistical difficulties of in-person visits during the pandemic.
How, for instance, could you explain to toddlers that, although their parents are standing six feet away, they can’t go any closer?
“That would be brutal,” she said. “That would be worse than them not being able to be in the same room with them, I think, because they’ve already been removed from their parents. And then you say, ‘OK, now you can see them but no, I can’t let you touch them. I can’t let you hug your momma.’ I would think it would send them right over the deep end again.”
Clements, like many parents of children in foster care in Hawaii and elsewhere, hopes that in-person visits are one of the first things to return as the pandemic eases.
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