Fostering Through COVID: Pandemic brings foster care system & families new challenges

“Children are still coming into care during the pandemic.”
Published: Jan. 6, 2021 at 12:46 PM CST|Updated: Jan. 7, 2021 at 9:30 PM CST
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - The pandemic is forcing cancellations and delays, but giving an at-risk child a safe and supportive place to stay can’t stop. Dane County Foster Care’s mission to give children in crisis a normalized, family setting is only heightened right now.

With a large number of emergency placements over the holidays and the risk of COVID-19 ever present, foster parents face a tall order.

Tonia Pittman and Faye Reber have cherished every minute of being foster parents in Dane County over the last two years. “It’s hard, but we wouldn’t trade it for anything,” says Pittman.

The pandemic presented many new obstacles for the couple and their two young foster children, as well as their newly adopted son.

Tonia Pittman & Faye Reber take their foster children & adopted son on a walk
Tonia Pittman & Faye Reber take their foster children & adopted son on a walk(Tonia Pittman & Faye Reber)

Due to strict confidentiality rules, identifying details about their foster children cannot be shared.

“Adjusting and adapting and accepting that this is our situation, but it’s not been easy,” says Reber. Precious visits with biological family have been forced to go virtual due to COVID-19 transmission concerns. “You go from twice a week, one hour visits in-person, to once a week a 15-minute phone call. The kids know that their families care about them and still love them, but it’s harder for them to understand why we can’t just go to their house or go to the park,” says Pittman.

With in-person visitation schedules no longer in place, planning becomes challenge. “The pandemic makes it difficult to be more consistent with visits. Calls are much harder to make. We’ve chatted and thought of different ways, like how can we facilitate a phone conversation with toddlers?” says Pittman.

Many children in the foster care system are also dealing with personal trauma, on top of the stress and uncertainty that the pandemic presents. Therapy and other special services available to foster families have also shifted to a digital format.

“They are taking care of kids that, often times, have some special needs. So that might be educational needs, behavioral emotional needs, and that just is an added layer because many of the services for those kids are also being done remotely,” says Sarah Lawton, the Out-Of-Home Care Supervisor for Dane County Human Services.

There’s been no break for Lawton and her team during this time either.

“Children are still coming into care during the pandemic. Our social workers and our foster care consultants, they’re essential workers. They’re responding to reports of child abuse and neglect and youth justice issues. My unit is responding to the need to get people licensed. What that means is they’re still having to go out into the community,” says Lawton.

Fortunately, many of foster families in the county are willing to accept children who are COVID positive, or who have had exposure to the virus, when they need emergency placement. “I was amazed that we had a number of foster parents who said yes. Which is just incredible that people put themselves out there and were willing to do that for our kids,” says Lawton.

As of January 1st, 2021 there were 385 children in Dane County Foster Care. There were also 165 foster homes, the lowest number of homes in the last decade. “Part of that has been a decrease in applications and some people have chosen to not continue fostering,” says Lawton.

Lawton says more local foster families are always needed, especially those who are willing to accept larger sibling groups and teenagers.

In the midst of this all, Tonia and Faye have found their silver lining. The couple finalized their son’s adoption, in true 2020 style. “Our adoption ended up being on zoom. So that’s normally something where you would be in the courthouse and take pictures with the judge. So it was hard to miss out on some of those parts, but it was also really cool to be able to finalize that in the middle of a pandemic,” says Reber.

Children's shoes placed under Christmas tree
Children's shoes placed under Christmas tree(Tonia Pittman & Faye Reber)

It was a priceless moment that they hope many more kids will get to have. “Kids just need a space to be who they are,” says Pittman.

They also found that quarantine provided opportunities for their foster children to grow in other challenging areas. “Children who experience trauma generally are behind developmentally in some capacity, whether it’s socially or emotionally. So being able to be home we were able to spend more time working with them on things just naturally, not really realizing it,” says Pittman.

Anyone interested in becoming a Dane County Foster Parent should contact Dane County Human Services.

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