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OPINION

With the coronavirus, America’s foster care system is at a tipping point

As vulnerable families confront joblessness, illness, and social isolation due to COVID-19, the number of children entering foster care could skyrocket.

A foster child clutches her stuffed animal inside the home of her foster mother.
A foster child clutches her stuffed animal inside the home of her foster mother.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

By failing to take early action on COVID-19, the federal government allowed the disease to spread at an exponential rate and overwhelm the nation’s medical system. The same mistake could be repeated with the US child welfare system, which is already facing enormous challenges serving the 437,000 foster children currently in its care. As vulnerable families confront joblessness, illness, and social isolation as a result of the coronavirus, the number of children entering foster care could skyrocket, overwhelming another critical system — with similarly devastating results.

In the past month, about 22 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits and now many foster parents are struggling to keep their jobs and homes while caring for children who are learning remotely. When budgets get tight, or homes get too crowded and tense, or foster kids test positive for COVID-19, foster parents may face a difficult choice. Foster children may well be the first to go, escorted out of the home by a caseworker with a garbage bag full of their clothes and no idea where they will wind up next.

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The outlook is similarly bleak for other children in the system. Tens of thousands of foster kids who live in group homes and institutions are facing the same outbreak risks as prisoners. Many more are being raised by their elderly grandparents, who are the most vulnerable to COVID-19 complications. As courts close, others who were on the cusp of being reunited with their parents or adopted are now lingering in foster care with no clear end in sight. Even foster youth who’ve beaten the odds and made it to college have been kicked out of their dorms as their universities shut down.

And if officials don’t act quickly to help families in need, the number of children in foster care could soar. Even before the pandemic, millions of families were struggling to care for their children while dealing with unemployment, food and housing insecurity, and physical and mental illness. As the COVID-19 crisis worsens, millions more could join their ranks. While social isolation is the best way to stop a pandemic, it’s also one of the leading reasons why children wind up in foster care, preventing parents from getting desperately needed services and cutting families off from relatives, friends, and neighbors who could help.

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The child welfare system does not have the capacity to manage a flood of new entries. Three years ago, when the number of children entering foster care surged at the height of the opioid addiction epidemic, states experienced severe shortages of foster families to care for them. As caseworkers scrambled to find homes for foster kids, many children wound up sleeping in hotels or in their caseworkers’ offices or were warehoused in institutions. If there is a similar surge because of COVID-19, the situation this time around could be far worse.

But it doesn’t have to be. Officials can take actions now to flatten the curve of children who might otherwise wind up in foster care and protect those who are already in the system.

To start, the next set of stimulus bills must prioritize vulnerable children and families. In the last stimulus, Congress awarded the airline industry nearly $60 billion. Yet it provided virtually no targeted funds to help children in foster care and a mere $45 million to support families in crisis so that they can stay out of the system, which is nowhere near enough to stem the tide of new foster care cases.

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Foster care institutional facilities must be emptied before they are hit by a COVID-19 outbreak. Children in these facilities should returned to their parents when it is safe. Relatives and foster families should be recruited to care for those who can’t go home.

Social workers, foster parents, and judges — the child welfare system’s first responders — must be provided with the child care, protective equipment, and technology they need to continue to care for children during this pandemic.

Vulnerable families must receive greater access to income supports, mental health services, substance abuse treatment, and parenting assistance so that children don’t have to enter the system in the first place.

And finally, each of us individually needs to step up as well. If we can check on our elderly neighbors and ensure they have groceries, then surely we can each do our part to support families as they care for children in these difficult times. Call that young family in your neighborhood who can barely make ends meet and ask what you can do to help. Sign up to be a foster parent, mentor, or a court-appointed special advocate for a child displaced by this crisis. Urge your representatives in Congress to provide stimulus funds to support foster youth and other children and families in need.

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It shouldn’t take a pandemic to make us realize that we all have a stake in each other’s well-being. But here we are, confronting the fundamental truth that our society is only as healthy as its most vulnerable members. That includes children whose families were already on the edge before this crisis. Their lives are at stake right now as well.

Sherry Lachman is the founder and executive director of Foster America and was a domestic policy adviser to the vice president during the Obama administration.