In a “normal” year, 400,000 children are in the US foster care system. That’s 1 out of every 184 American children. The pandemic has brought havoc to this already overstrained system in an unexpected way.
While child welfare calls have gone down—for example, reports of child maltreatment in New York City dropped 51 percent in the spring of last year compared to the same period in 2019—most experts agree kids are not safer. In fact, the heightened stress and insecurity of this crisis has likely increased abuse, neglect, and other factors that would normally necessitate intervention. But with schools, day cares, and community life closed or on hold, fewer mandated reporters and even concerned neighbors are interacting with kids who might be in need.
One county in North Carolina reported a spike in the number of children actually removed from homes in the fall of 2020, even though reporting calls were down 20%. Wake County Child Welfare saw an added, disturbing change: while 83 percent of removals are typically due to neglect, social workers found nearly half during the pandemic, 45% were because of abuse. Fewer reports but more removals with a higher percentage of abuse paints a dreary picture of the life of the American child enduring this crisis.
A complicating factor for this catastrophe is many counties are reporting low numbers of foster homes. Working parents who aren’t able to be home with foster children when schools are closed, worries about spreading the virus, generally increased stress and uncertainty, the average higher age of foster parents, and other factors are making it harder for agencies to recruit willing families. For example, Dane County in Wisconsin has 385 children in foster care, but only 165 foster homes—their lowest number of homes in the last decade. Stark County Children’s Services in Ohio reported that 10% of the foster parents on their regular roster are no longer able to take in new children at this time. Nationwide, scattered reports from desperate agencies echo more of the same: dropping numbers of foster parent applications.
Additionally, with courts limiting procedures or even temporarily closing, more children are staying in foster care instead of being granted permanency (whether via reunification with their family or through another permanent resource). For example, in California, almost 4,300 fewer children left foster care between October 2019 and September 2020 compared with the same time frame a year earlier. A child’s average stay in the foster care system is already over a year, and extending that time only further stresses the system and each individual child’s development.
Older children in foster care, particularly those who are aging out of the system or nearing that age, are not immune to the economic and emotional impact of the pandemic. One in four 18- to 24-year-olds who are (or were) in foster care experienced heightened food insecurity since the pandemic began. In addition, about 40% were forced to move or feared having to move, nearly 33% said they only had enough money for a week or less of living costs, and 27% of transition-age foster care youth lost their jobs because of the pandemic.
So, what is your calling to the hurting kids of our country?
Most experts agree that an overwhelming surge of kids is about to hit the foster care system. As restrictions are lifted and more sunshine enters dark places, abuse and neglect that has been hidden for months is going to expose the needs of an unprecedented number of children.
But the question we face is not, “What can our nation do to help hundreds of thousands of children?”
The question is, “What can I do to change one child’s life?”
Kelley Rose Waller and her husband are Pennsylvania foster parents. She is the author of two novels, The Senator’s Youngest Daughter and Going Back Cold. Kelley is Vice President of a marketing firm. Her goal is to live, work, and write to glorify the name of Jesus Christ. www.kelleyrosewaller.com
 Administration for Children’s Services
 California Child Welfare Indicators Project
 14.7 months, childwelfare.gov
 Foster Club study, March 2020