On Tuesday, May 12, 2020, child welfare leaders from Washington D.C. and Virginia discussed how the region’s foster care and child welfare services are being impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic during the nationally syndicated public radio Kojo Nnamdi Show.

The guests included Brenda Donald, District of Columbia, Director, DC Child, and Family Services Agency, Sharra Greer, Policy Director, DC Children’s Law Center, and Allison Gilbreath, Policy Analyst, Voices for Virginia’s Children. Donald talked about the 720 children and youth in foster care. She noted that before the pandemic, approximately 25 to 30 children might enter foster care each month, but that number has gone down. Before the coronavirus, the City had focused intently on reducing the foster care population down from more than 3000 children in care when Washington had a smaller population than currently.

She talked about the fact that calls into the child abuse hotline are down significantly during the pandemic because normally 60 to 75 percent of child abuse and neglect reports are generated by school personnel, including teachers. A critical concern is about the children who are not coming to the city’s attention. She said the foster families caring for children have “stepped-up” during this crisis to continue caring for children under challenging circumstances, but it is the children they do not see in foster care. The City is working closely with community partners to be aware of the situation.

Allison Gilbreath indicated a review of Virginia’s system in 2018 found challenges in finding foster homes and in the workforce and worker recruitment. Since the pandemic in mid-March, 180 children have entered foster care with most in families but some in congregate care placements. She indicated that one of the challenges in Virginia is finding families willing to accept a placement that may require an initial 14-day quarantine.

Sharra Greer was asked about how visits are being conducted. She indicated that most children and families are being connected through virtual visits. It has both benefits and can be problematic. Virtual or zoom visits may allow for more frequent contact for some families when previous visits require traveling over a long distance. At the same time, visits by phone or video are not as beneficial if the child is an infant or toddler.

Director Donald pushed back against a caller who had suggested that encouraging calls would create a number of false accusations and removals. She said the District’s focus is on helping families and that calls of child abuse and neglect are, in fact, screened. With school out, children are not being seen. She also refuted a television report from last year that children would be picked up by protective services if a parent was late for picking up a child from school. Donald said during the pandemic 22 families have been reunified, ten have been placed with relatives, and eight children have been adopted. The District has extended foster care for youth in care so that teens in care will not age out during this crisis.

Gilbreath addressed the challenges of finding social workers in the state of Virginia. The starting salary is a little more than $30,000 per year and that in some instances, that means you could be making more working at a Target store and getting hazard pay.

Before the pandemic Virginia had appropriated more than $92 million for the state’s child welfare system, she said it was the biggest increase in decades, but all new spending is on hold due to the pandemic budget crisis. She would like to see that money put back when the legislature returns for an emergency session.