Closure of schools puts Bay Area’s foster children at greater risk
The Mercury News | May 5, 2020
By: Ginni Ring, Renée Espinoza and Frederick J. Ferrer
Even in the best of times, child welfare systems in California are beleaguered, underfunded, and stressed. Last year, California had 83,000 children living in foster care—the largest number of any state.
Times are tough enough for a child who has been removed from their family because of abuse or neglect. But COVID-19 has thrown all of this dysfunction into even more chaos.
Child welfare departments are limiting in-person visits to only the most severe cases. Welfare check-ups are going down just when the potential for child abuse is rising. The court’s mandated visits between biological families and children are on hold. And shutdowns at family courts means longer stays in foster care for children who have already experienced too much trauma.
The closing of schools is a disaster for abused children. Teachers are the primary reporters of suspicious bruises or behavior suggesting child abuse. But now those protective eyes and ears are not on children who may be seriously hurt at home. Hospitals are seeing more children injured by family members. Sadly, history shows us that child abuse increases with heightened family stress.
But there can be other “eyes and ears” on children: Court Appointed Special Advocates—CASAs—who play a powerful part in California’s foster care system. In the Bay Area, CASA programs are a vital resource. Our CASAs are ordinary citizens who volunteer to be the “voice” of a child in foster care. They are recruited and well-trained by our CASA programs. Today, across the state, 9,000 volunteers are advocating for 14,000 children in foster care.
Supervised in their advocacy by professionals, CASA volunteers are effective advocates for children in court and in school. They are mentors and friends for children who have suffered greatly and who have lost trust in adults. CASAs help children get the medical and educational support they need.
COVID-19 has dramatically upended the landscape for CASA programs. CASAs can now only connect through text, phone, or Facetime. There are no outings to a park, a library, or an ice cream shop. Dependency courts are shut down or on limited schedules, so CASAs’ critical court advocacy is on hold.
Yet, CASAs continue to achieve remarkable results for youth, from securing laptops or cell phones for distance learning and family communication, planning for college and career, to ensuring the foster home has the food and basics to provide for kids now home 24/7.
While facing drastic drops in income and canceled fundraising events, we’re funding urgent needs such as groceries from CASA program budgets, while volunteers advocate for longer term solutions from the counties.
The Bay Area’s children need CASAs now more than ever. And we need more CASAs. The CASA system in California needs more support.
Foster children are our children, and we must help them through this pandemic which impacts them so disproportionately. Even at the height of this pandemic, Bay Area CASA programs are recruiting volunteers and preparing to conduct training “virtually” while we practice social distancing. What better way to spend time at home than training to be a CASA?
We cannot let this global health pandemic evolve into a child abuse pandemic. We urge the State Legislature to enact emergency support for the 44 CASA programs helping 14,000 children. And we urge members of the community to step up and volunteer to help a child. We must not forget the abused, neglected children in our community. They need and deserve the advocacy that only a CASA can deliver.
Gina Ring is executive director of Alameda County CASA. Renee Espinoza is executive director of San Francisco CASA. Frederick J. Ferrer is CEO of Child Advocates of Silicon Valley.