Even in the best of times, child welfare systems in California are beleaguered, underfunded and stressed. There are too few social workers for foster children and their troubled birth families, and these caseworkers are often overworked within a huge bureaucratic system.
Last year, California had 83,000 children living in foster care—the largest number of any state in the nation.
Times are tough enough for a child who has been removed from their family because of parental abuse or neglect. And foster care is nothing we would wish on any child. But the invisible, stealthy, silent enemy that is COVID-19 has thrown all of this dysfunction into even more chaos.
Child welfare departments are starting to limit in-person emergency visits to only the most severe cases, so welfare check-ups are going down just when the potential for child abuse is rising.
For social workers, the potential toll is physical as well as emotional. The national shortage of gloves, masks and safety gear is impacting foster care, as caseworkers worry about visiting homes without any protection.
The court’s mandated visits between biological families and children have stopped because of the pandemic.
And shutdowns at family courts are burdening all parties—children and families, judges, court professionals, foster families—and the result will be even longer stays in foster care for children who have already experienced unthinkable adverse life experiences.
The closing of schools has been a disaster for abused children. Teachers are the primary reporters of suspicious bruises or behavior suggesting child abuse. But now those eyes and ears are not on children who may be getting seriously hurt at home.
There is a rise in admissions to hospitals of children injured by family members. Sadly, history has shown us that child abuse increases when there is heightened family stress such as that now being brought on by the pandemic.
But there can be other valuable “eyes and ears” on children: Court Appointed Special Advocates— called “CASAs”—who play a powerful part in California’s foster care system statewide.
CASA volunteers are trained community members who becomes sworn officers of the court by the juvenile court judges to represent the best interests of court-dependent children. There are 248 CASAs who are helping 326 foster children and youth in our community.
CASAs provide the court with information about how the children are doing while they are part of the foster care system. This information helps the court make sound decisions about the children’s best interests.
Supervised in their advocacy work by CASA program professionals, the volunteers advocate for children in court and in school. They are also mentors, friends and adult role models for children who have suffered and who have lost all trust in adults.
CASAs help children get the medical and educational support they need, and they work with the professionals in the child welfare system toward either reunification with a family or toward adoption and a permanent living plan for the child.
Because of the pandemic, CASAs can no longer visit their case children face-to-face, and can only connect through text, phone or FaceTime. And with school out, it’s harder for CASAs to inspire a child to do their homework or read more books. They try to help from the required social distance, but it is difficult.
Most important, many juvenile dependency courts are now either shut down or operating on limited schedules, and so the critical court advocacy that CASAs offer to foster children is on temporary hold. All the while, the child is living in temporary and often less-than-ideal foster circumstances.
Older foster youth are suffering from lost jobs or, if they were attending college, a lost school year—including no dorm living. For these older kids, the chance increases for them to become homeless, hungry, sick, trafficked or tempted into crime.
Like all nonprofits, CASA programs are facing a drastic drop in contributed income. Fundraising events have been canceled, and donations are shrinking.
CASA volunteers are needed now more than ever and it is essential that the CASA system in California be shored up and adequately supported by public and private funders.
We cannot let this global health pandemic evolve into a child abuse pandemic. And we cannot allow those children entering foster care to be left to languish because there are not enough CASAs to advocate for their best interests.
We urge the California state Legislature to enact emergency support for the 44 CASA programs that are helping 14,000 children and must continue to do this important work even through the COVID-19 pandemic.
And we urge members of the community to step up now and volunteer to help a child.
For more information, visit casaofventuracounty.org or call (805) 389-3120.
Eric Z. Dersom is the CFO of CASA of Ventura County.