By Lee Shappell
In the best of times, securing safe, nurturing homes and support for the more than 14,000 children in Arizona’s foster-care system is a challenge.
During a pandemic, nonprofit foster-care support agencies that serve the Tempe-Chandler area are running on empty, as are those they serve.
Resources are drained. Potential foster families now have their own problems. There are not as many eyes on potentially endangered kids, who are socially distanced and may be foster-care candidates. Charitable giving that funds support agencies is at risk.
So Kris Jacober, executive director of Arizona Friends of Foster Children Foundation, recently created the One for All Foster Care Support Network that brought 12 foster-care support organizations together. It is intended to be a short-term alliance to assist families during the strains of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Children in foster care are already traumatized, and the uncertainty and change of this pandemic adds to their trauma,” Jacober said.
Items available through One for All include food, cleaning supplies, clothes, birthday gifts, cribs and beds, car seats, hygiene items, diapers, wipes, school backpacks and supplies, as well as virtual training workshops, virtual support groups and telephone support for foster parents.
“ONE4Allaz.com received over 100 requests the first day of launching so we know the needs are on the rise for individual foster families,” said Jenny Cook, a founding partner and licensing specialist with Southeast Valley-based Boost A Foster Family, a member of the One of All alliance. “It is not uncommon for a relative with four or five kids of their own to take in a sibling group of an additional three, four or five kids, so a household of eight to 10 or more is being limited to buying one gallon of milk or one chicken or one pack of toilet paper.
“This pandemic is definitely putting a strain on these larger families. Grandparents fostering grandchildren are now faced with the daunting task of figuring out online schooling. Kids in the system who are accustomed to regular visits with mom or dad are now doing that through electronic means. It is hard on every player: the parent, the caregiver and especially the kids.”
Arizona Helping Hands, Arizona’s largest provider of essential needs to the foster-care population and another One for All member, provides home-safety items to foster families that the state requires.
“We’d shut down for a while but now we’re back up,” said Dan Shufelt, Arizona Helping Hands president and CEO. “We were thinking maybe the resurgence would be very slow and gradual, but one of the dynamics was that requests for those home-safety items has actually increased.
“One of the hypotheses is that while folks are at home, it gives them more time to access virtual classes that are required of foster parents and to maybe dot some of those ‘i’s’ and cross some of those ‘t’s’ that they had started before this.”
Typically, foster families from all over Arizona would drive to Arizona Helping Hands’ Foster Family Resource Center, an 18,000-square-foot warehouse in north Phoenix, to pick up their needed items: beds, cribs, diapers, personal-care packages, extra footlockers, back-to-school items, also fire extinguishers, customized first aid kits, smoke alarms, CO2 monitors — all of the required items that a licensed home inspector would walk through a house and check.
“We could interface. We could chat with them. We could let their kids play in our lobby and in our little playground,” Shufelt said. “We could specifically address needs and give support they might require face to face. In this environment, we’re not able to be as big a resource to these families.
“I have a dear friend who is fostering nine children. Imagine being cooped up and the frustrations and pressures that are placed on families just trying to find enough toilet paper.”
Agencies that recruit and train foster parents are not doing in-person orientations or trainings. Families already in training are moving forward online.
Prior to the pandemic, Arizona Helping Hands hosted an orientation session at its facility every month. Foster licensing organizations came in and explained the process of becoming a foster parent.
Darren DaRonco of the Arizona Department of Child Safety said the department has not yet seen a significant decline in people seeking to be foster parents. Anyone interested can visit dcs.az.gov. The agency continues to train foster families through its online foster parent college program.
FEWER EYES ON AT-RISK KIDS
The pandemic also has created the perfect storm for an increase in abuse and neglect, according to Cook. Being locked up in a house with six kids can cause unbelievable stress on top of the financial challenges that these hard times that have placed on families.
Without the reporters – such as school teachers seeing things that are not correct or not appropriate – the number of reports coming into the Department of Child Safety are down, DaRonco confirms.
Don’t be fooled, Shufelt warns.
“When somebody says it is safe to go back in the water, you better be careful, because there is a tsunami coming our way from issues that have not been addressed during this quote-unquote quiet time,” Shufelt said. “We anticipate that the foster population is going to grow as result of these difficult days.”
The DCS Semi Annual Child Welfare Report, released in March 2020 with data through Dec. 31, 2019, showed 14,142 children in out-of-home care, 47.2 per cent of them in care 13 months or longer. The average number of placements per child was 3.0, indicating that already traumatized kids often are shuffled from home to home. The next DCS report, with statistics during the pandemic, is due out in September.
The DCS began adjusting its practices to protect its workers and the families it serves in March, according to DaRonco.
“Child-abuse investigations are still done in-person with extra-precautions in place,” DaRonco said. “All other DCS activities, such as monthly in-home visits, court hearings and parent-child visits are conducted virtually.”
Law enforcement agencies have reported increased incidences of domestic abuse during the pandemic.
“Typically, domestic violence and children coming in to foster care are tied very closely together,” Jacober said.
DaRonco acknowledges that child abuse and neglect are still occurring.
“Teachers and school personnel comprise one of the largest groups to report child abuse. On average, we are seeing an over 25 percent decrease in calls to our hotline since schools closed,” DaRonco said.
“That means many children are suffering in silence. Keeping children safe is the responsibility of every Arizonan. DCS cannot investigate child abuse and neglect unless we receive a report from the community. A child’s life may depend on it.”
Anyone who suspects that a child is being abused or neglected is asked to report it to DCS at 888-767-2445.
CRUCIAL CHARITABLE GIVING AT RISK
It takes money to make the foster-care support network run.
Most foster-care support agencies in Arizona rely on charitable giving, in which the donor receives a tax credit on a state income tax return. Although the deadline was extended to July 15 for filing returns, the deadline for tax-credit giving toward a 2019 Arizona return was not extended beyond April 15. Donations now may be applied to a 2020 Arizona tax return but there has not been a stampede of givers working that far ahead.
“We will certainly see a financial hit, but as an essential service to children in foster care, we have a story that we hope people will gravitate to and support the important work that we do,” Shufelt said. “But I fear that many institutional supporters and corporate supporters won’t have the resources to provide the support and help us out. I certainly have concerns about the wherewithal of the larger donors who have been impacted by everything that is going on.
“We anticipate that the numbers for our next fiscal year could be off the charts because new and deferred needs are going to arise. The longer schools are out of session, the greater the pressure is going to be on every foster family.”
Arizona Helping Hands was in a $3 million capital campaign to pay for its building and renovations and to create an endowment to allow it to continue its work when the pandemic hit.
Cook said that Boost A Foster Family anticipates fewer donations due to financial insecurity of its donors. The charity receives almost all of its funding through the Arizona tax-credit program.
Jacober said that donations to Arizona Friends of Foster Children Foundation held steady for 2019 but she has grave concerns about how future donations might look.
“We’re constantly trying to figure out how to adapt and respond and assist in these challenging times,” Shufelt said. “There are new challenges that have been placed on families that made the decision to help children in need.
“There are so many new layers just piling up. Nobody was prepared for this.”