GEORGIA — Changes from the COVID-19 pandemic have created conditions that may lead to a surge in foster care cases.
“We expect a surge [across the country], either late summer or in the fall, if school comes back,” said Brett Hillesheim, director of marketing for Wellroot Family Services, a faith-centered organization that assists in Georgia foster care, especially in DeKalb County. “That will put a strain on the system, because quite frankly, there probably won’t be as many families to care for all of the children.”
Currently, there are about 800 foster children in Fulton County and 13,000 statewide, Hillesheim said.
As with many businesses and institutions, the issue partially lies with unexpected, lengthy closures.
Usually, anyone can report suspected child abuse or neglect, and the state will investigate and potentially remove a child from their home in the report is confirmed. But now, children are staying mostly at home and there are less chances and less people to check on them, leading to a drop in reports, Hillesheim said.
The investigations aren’t going through as usual and may lead to an influx once the pandemic eases up.
“All of a sudden, all of these children are going to be visible again,” Hillesheim said. “People are going to see that there’s been neglect or abuse happening… There’s going to be a severe lack of foster families then, more than likely, because the homes that could have been opened by sending children home earlier are still going to be full because the courts weren’t meeting, and there’s going to be all of these new children entering the system.”
Court closures have also wreaked havoc in a number of cases, causing issues with reuniting families or facilitating visitations.
“Usually, the courts take over and determine what happens next with the birth parents and the children,” Hillesheim said. “Since the pandemic started, most courts are not meeting. Some courts have started meeting in certain cases, but most courts are stalled. What we’ve seen is that kids that should have gone home early March or late March, they’re still in the system, because the judge can’t send them home. They’re staying in system longer than they would have otherwise.”
Because of the closed courts, Hillesheim added that many children who were getting regular visitation with their birth parents are no longer receiving it, which can be traumatic in-and-of itself.
“You go from being able to see your mom or dad once or maybe twice a week to you can’t,” he said.
One Forsyth County foster parent has seen the effects of these closures firsthand.
Beth Murray, who has been fostering for about five years, said she has had to postpone several doctor’s visits for her two current foster children, ages 2 and 5. And any visitations, counseling and schooling are now conducted virtually.
“The thing I’ve noticed is that the virtual meetings do not hold their attention as long,” she said. “So, a visit is 2-3 minutes now versus a 30-minute or two-hour visit, just because you can’t do anything or interact much over the computer.”
People can still help during the crisis by supporting organizations like Wellroot Family Services. And the help given by simply checking in on local foster families should not be underestimated, Murray said.
“Your support group is very important in foster care,” she said. “You may be really struggling to keep it together.”
People can still begin the process of becoming a foster family during this time. For more information and support, visit wellroot.org.
In North Fulton County, the Foster Care Support Foundation provides infant equipment and other support supplies for foster families throughout the state. Items are distributed through the group’s center at 115 Mansell Place in Roswell.
Another site, Fostering Hope Resale Store, offers supplies at 608 Holcomb Bridge Road.
Both accept and distribute foster family supplies to help sustain the foster care system. Visit fostercares.org/ for more information.