As in-person visits resume for children and parents in the child-welfare system, the state Department of Child Safety acknowledged positive cases of COVID-19 among both children in foster care and DCS staffers.
The agency would not share further details, such as the number of cases, how many are in group homes versus individual foster homes, or how many involve staffers who do in-home visits. Agency attorneys cited the need to protect confidential medical information in denying The Arizona Republic’s request.
The disclosure comes as face-to-face meetings resume after a 10-week hiatus due to efforts to reduce the spread of the new coronavirus. The potential for the virus to spread as children shuttle from their foster home, to a meeting place with their parent, and back, has added to the anxiety of some foster parents.
But DCS Director Mike Faust says the visits are vital as the agency works to safely reunite children separated from their parents due to abuse and neglect.
“I never wanted them to stop,” Faust said of the in-person meetings. “To go almost three months without seeing your parents face to face is not a healthy situation.”
Child-welfare studies have shown face-to-face meetings are an important part of the process of ensuring a bond forms between parent and child.
The goal, Faust said, is “to get as many families back to in-person visitation as possible.”
There are exceptions, such as on the Navajo Nation, where COVID-19 cases have proliferated. Virtual visits will remain the standard there until June 26. Elsewhere, in-person visits for children who are immunocompromised or have other risk factors will depend on advice from the child’s doctor.
A requirement that all adults in the meetings wear masks has been fairly well-received, Faust said. DCS has distributed 10,000 masks to contract workers who supervise visits. If a parent shows up without a mask, they will be provided one.
Faust said the return to in-person visits has brought push-back from some foster parents, just as he got complaints from biological parents when the agency in mid-March shifted most visits to virtual sessions conducted over laptops, tablets or phones.
“We need to be very cognizant of the fact that there are multiple perspectives,” he said. “Some people are ready for the communities to be open, and others are not so ready for these restrictions to be lifted.”
More testing needed
Amanda Lower is one of those anxious foster parents. Earlier this week, she refused to help set up a visit between her two grandchildren with their father, concerned that members of his household have been exposed to the coronavirus. Lower said she is in a risk category for the virus, and her doctor has advised her to not work and to limit her contacts.
“I don’t want to die,” she said. “I don’t want my next address to be a cemetery.”
Lower said she’d only go along with the visit if everyone in the father’s household were first tested for COVID-19. In response, she said the DCS case manager initially told her he would have to move the kids back to their mother’s care, accelerating a plan that called for the children to return to their mother in early July.
After the father and other household members tested negative for COVID-19, Lower dropped her opposition, and DCS changed its stance, allowing the children to stay with her. Lower is the children’s maternal grandmother.
To Lower, testing is the sensible thing to do. DCS is supposed to be working to protect the child’s best interest, she said.
“Their best interests are not to be exposed to COVID-19,” she said.
Positive cases, but no numbers
Faust said DCS protocols require all parties involved in face-to-face visits — parents, DCS case managers, service providers and foster parents — to disclose if they have COVID-19 or COVID-like symptoms. If a biological parent believes he or she has been exposed to the virus, the visit will shift to a virtual one.
It was “inevitable,” Faust said, that, some people would test positive for COVID-19, given the agency has 3,000 staffers and 14,000 children in out-of-home care.
“We’ve been very fortunate and blessed that we haven’t seen significant challenges,” he said. But he demurred when asked for statistics, saying he’d have to check with agency attorneys on whether disclosing such numbers would violate privacy provisions.
The argument is similar to the position of the state Department of Health Services, which has refused to release aggregate data on COVID cases in Arizona nursing homes. Last week, a Maricopa County Superior Court judge rejected a challenge from media organizations to that policy.
Notification, contact tracing
DCS notifies biological parents if their child in DCS custody contracts COVID. Contact tracing is done for any child or agency staffer who reports a COVID case, to try to determine where the exposure happened.
Faust said staffers who suspect they might have been exposed need to get tested. Just this week, DCS workers were added to the list of medical professionals and other first-responders who are getting antibody tests administered by the University of Arizona.
He said the virus’ impact on agency operations has not been “overwhelming” because of policies the agency has created and shared publicly on its website. They follow Centers for Disease Control guidelines.
One set of protocols is aimed at parent-child visits and another set of protocols is intended for contractors who enter homes to provide various services to families.
“At the end of the day, you have as much risk as going to the grocery store or Costco because we’re taking a lot of precautions, we’re being very mindful.” he said.
Anxiety on all sides
The assurances still leave foster parents like Jennifer Jones uneasy. But, she said, there is little choice but to go along with the return to in-person visits, even as the coronavirus continues to be a threat.
“Because I love her and I want the best for her, I’ll do it,” Jones said of her foster daughter. She was busy negotiating a location for the little girl to meet with her mother.
She worries about the aides who supervise parent-child visits. They go to numerous homes or visitation centers, Jones said, increasing the risk of exposure.
But biological parents face the same anxiety, said Susie Huhn, executive director of Casa de los Ninos, a Tucson non-profit that provides services to families involved with DCS. “They don’t know where the foster families have been, and vice versa.”
Plus, biological parents have an added worry.
“If I was a parent and I hadn’t seen my kid for 12 weeks, I’d be upset, too,” she said.
Kayla Corneliusen has two children in DCS custody. She is waiting for DCS to fly her children to Phoenix from their foster placement at her father’s Minnesota home for a visit. It would be the first time in months that she would have the chance to see her kids, ages 6 and 9.
She said the virtual visits she’s done over the last few months were difficult and not very satisfying. The guardian ad litem watching out for the kids’ best interests tells her they’re acting out because they have not seen their mom, Corneliusen said.
Can you social distance with your kid?
When visits happen, service providers such as Sally Jones said they’ve prepared to make it as corona-safe as possible.
The visitation rooms that her agency, HRT, operates are sanitized between visits and the toys that are typically are on hand have been removed in the interest of minimizing contact. The case aides who supervise visits are instructed to stay at least six feet apart, which is something their visitation rooms can accommodate.
She said it’s impossible to expect that a kid who has not seen her parent in 12 weeks to keep a distance.
“Kids are going to hug their parents,” Jones said. “Kids are going to want to touch their parents.”
It’s important to allow parents and children to connect in person, she said, even as many are wary it will add to COVID-19 numbers.
“Everybody is apprehensive about this,” Jones said. “I think it’s really not much different than the general population being apprehensive about opening up.”
About this report
Coverage of child-welfare issues, including how the new coronavirus is affecting efforts to reunify families, is made possible by an ongoing grant from the Arizona Community Foundation.
Are you a biological or foster parent who has had to adapt to changes made in response to the coronavirus? We want to hear how it has affected you and the children you care for. Read more about child-welfare issues by subscribing to The Arizona Republic/azcentral.com
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @maryjpitzl
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .