Families with foster children juggle online school, parenting challenges

Many of Georgia's 12,000 foster children and their families struggle coping with the start of an unprecedented school year playing out on digital devices. Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

Beth White of Gwinnett County got state approval to become a foster mom in February and welcomed her three foster children shortly before COVID-19 spread to Georgia, spurring school and business shutdowns.

She has had to take on the need to manage the three children’s schooling and the meetings with state caseworkers entirely online. The Whites’ foster children are 10, seven and three, and the two younger children have a hard time paying attention to the social workers on their video screen.

“Just trying to keep the kids focused during those times is very difficult, especially the youngest,” she said. “She’s a three-year-old, she could care less about FaceTiming with someone she thinks of as a stranger. It’s not somebody that she really knows. The 7-year-old, he’s a boy and he is completely kinetic, and just getting him to sit and answer a few questions and chat with somebody is painful to watch.”

The Whites are also trying to balance their own work schedules around their foster children’s needs.

“My husband and I are a working family, so we have to work around our schedules, and we understand they have work hours also, but there is an element of difficulty there because we are trying to schedule things in the evenings, or, like this morning, we actually did an 8 a.m. FaceTime with a caseworker just so she could get time with the kids.”

Heading back to school has been a challenge for families all over Georgia. Districts that have opted for face-to-face learning have had to send hundreds of students home under quarantine, and digital learning is an imperfect substitute, especially for working parents.

Those challenges can be magnified for the nearly 12,000 foster children in Georgia, who are more likely than their peers to have experienced neglect or trauma.

“Foster parents are really struggling right now,” said John DeGarmo of Jasper County, founder of the Foster Care Institute advocacy group. “The kids in foster care, during COVID-19, they’re not getting the services they need, they’re not getting the professional therapy sessions they need, they’re not getting the face-to-face visitation. Instead, they’re doing it online, which is much harder for them. Many of them are not getting the school services they need.”

Georgia’s foster care system has faced challenges since before the pandemic, DeGarmo said.

“Before March, before COVID changed all of our lives, foster care really was in a crisis nationwide. That was because of the opioid epidemic, more kids flooding into the system, not enough foster parents. Georgia was one of the higher states because we have a very rural area, and a lot of those rural areas are affected by the opioid epidemic.”

Being away from school has been even tougher on foster children, said DeGarmo, who has helped raise over 60 foster children. Foster students are on average 18 months behind their peers academically and are more likely to have behavior and attendance issues, he said.

White’s foster children have asked her about COVID-19, but the disease does not appear to be a big concern for them, she said.

“We’re aware when we go out, everybody wears their mask, and we don’t actually go out too often,” she said. “But we do talk about it. They’ve asked questions about, you know, if they get COVID are they going to die, things that they’ve heard.”

In spite of the unexpected challenges, fostering has been a rewarding experience, White said.

“It is eye opening, and there are some challenges, but we felt called to become foster parents, and we feel that God is equipping us with what we need to handle the situation,” she said.

Sarah Long of Columbia County started fostering three just over a year ago. Her family was pleasantly surprised with the ability to adapt to digital care.

“We already had established providers by that point in time, so for us, it’s just been transitioning to virtual appointments, and that’s been a huge improvement for us and for the kids, because, if you think about kids that are in school, you have to leave work, go pick the kids up at school, drive them to an appointment, stay with them at the appointment, drive them back to school and you go back to work. And that’s half a day, most times. But with the kids being virtual, we don’t experience that. Literally, you just log in, and your provider is right there.”

It’s been a challenge managing a digital education for their three foster children and one biological child all in one home, so the Longs plan to bring on a facilitator to help keep the children on track while the parents work.

They are lucky that is an option for them, Long said. Other foster families, especially those with older children, are struggling to figure out their options. Some older children are stuck alone in an unfamiliar home.

“A real challenge for folks that have foster kids is what do you do when the school districts are closed?” she said. “And you have to work, because that’s also a condition of being a foster parent, you have to maintain your employment, you have to maintain your income.”

The state Division of Family and Children Services, like every other state department, is facing drastic budget cuts. The division’s budget fell by about $19 million, or about 3% over the previous year, after COVID-19 hammered expected tax revenues.

“We did have to decrease funding to some of our programming,” said Tammy Reed, director of placement and permanency services for DFCS. “We’re seeking some alternate ways to try to manage through that, and we’re having to watch our staffing. We are really prioritizing still being able to ensure that the frontline case management and supervisory staff remain full and healthy. That’s our priority. Where we do have to make difficult decisions is in staffing that outside of that frontline group.”

The department’s most urgent business, investigating potential cases of neglect and abuse and removing children from unsafe home situations has not changed because of COVID-19, Reed said. But once those children are placed in foster homes, their interactions with the department’s social workers take place mostly over a screen.

“Like most of the world, we have gone to virtual for a lot of things, so we are making the majority of our agency contacts with our children and caregivers virtually right now, maintaining the same frequency, but doing that virtually versus in person,” she said.

The transition has gone surprisingly smoothly for many teens and older children who have grown up using video chat, Reed said, but checking up on younger children like the Whites’ has been more of a challenge.

“We have been learning right alongside our caregivers and our foster parents about how to observe a child as they go about what they are doing naturally, so they may be playing and we may be observing,” she said.

“We might be asking them to show us something in their room, and caregivers have to assist us in ensuring that those things happen. So those have been challenging, for sure, and we’re learning and growing on how to do those contacts. And then once they’re older, it’s been really refreshing, actually. In many cases, they seem more engaged.”

Many of the men and women who work to help keep Georgia’s youth safe are looking forward to being able to meet with families in-person again, she said.

“They think that virtual has gone better than they expected, they’ve seen some silver linings, but social work and the work of supporting people and building strong and healthy relationships with people so that they can thrive is face-to-face work,” she said. “I definitely see that our social workers really do miss the opportunity to spend time together with parents and children and caregivers, and they are eager to get back to that.”

Ross Williams
Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business executives to the living rooms of grieving parents. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting. A native of Cobb County, Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Atlanta's Oglethorpe University and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University.