Officials with a local foster care agency said that the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have not only affected foster care centers, but also the entire child-care system, and it is expected to bring on a large increase of children entering the foster care system once the pandemic is over or restrictions are lessened.
“It's a major issue,” said Chris Peck, CEO of the Hope Hill Foster Center in Hazard. “We have about 40 kids right now in the Hazard area. We've been, at times, around 60 but the pandemic has created some challenges as far as getting placements and things of that nature.”
The pandemic, said Peck, has impacted every aspect of the childcare system.
“It's not just those families and children that are feeling the weight of the pandemic, it's really the whole child welfare system,” said Peck. “Being a foster parent in the middle of this chaos is extremely difficult. If you can imagine, they're dealing with a kid who maybe has ADHD or some kind of extreme behavior, and now not only are they a foster parent, they're being asked to be a home-schooler. It's an impossible task,”
Peck said many of the foster families are faced with issues such as these, but due to the limitations in place during the pandemic, there are less resources available for the families.
“Most kids in the child welfare system are extremely behind in school because they've either bounced around from home to home or school system to school system, and so they really need to be doing school in-person. They need that more personal touch, that one-on-one. Education on a computer is decent, but it's not best case scenario,” said Peck.
Because of the pandemic, he said, the agency hasn't been able to offer in-person support as much as they did before the pandemic began.
“We kind of limited our visits,” said Peck. The center’s staff, said Peck, is still going to homes when there is a crisis, but for the most part, has been using virtual meetings with families throughout the pandemic.
“It's definitely not as good as an in-person visit, because you can't really see what's going on in the house as much,” said Peck.
The pandemic, he said, has not reduced the need for foster care services.
“The statistics in May we had an all-time high for the state of Kentucky,” he said. “We had 10,047 kids in out-of-home care. That's an all-time high for this state. Most recently, those numbers came out and we have 470 less kids since May, so we know there are kids out there that are in dangerous situations and being hurt it's just that they're not being identified.
“For kids not in the system, those that are still at home with parents using drugs and mommas maybe having multiple men coming into the home that puts kids at risk,” said Peck. “People are struggling financially. Sometimes state workers are so overworked, they mistake poverty for neglect. I think the biggest obstacle and challenge is going to be is determining which kids really need to be removed and then what is appropriate placement.”
The pandemic, he said, is leading to a multitude of issues.
“Courts are very backed up right now, because they were shut down for several weeks, if not a month,” Peck said. “Social workers were suspended from entering homes to check on kids or conduct investigations. Abuse hotline calls are down by more than 40 percent and in some cases down 50 percent. Places where children were kind of normally seen like schools, ball teams and daycare settings, when they're not operating, those kids are not being identified. We truly expect that once the pandemic is over, there is just going to be a flood of children who enter the system.
“There will not be enough case workers in the state of Kentucky to really assess what is going on with that child,” said Peck, stating that once the pandemic restrictions are lifted and hundreds of new cases are opened, foster care agencies will have to hire or provide more social workers and skilled foster families.
Hope Hill, said Peck, trains foster families to be willing, capable and able to take in children that may have faced trauma. Many of the staff and foster families, he said, are currently engaged in virtual training exercises to better prepare for trauma behaviors that could be experienced.
“We're talking about kids who have already experienced loss, trauma, abandonment, so the feeling of isolation for them is so significant because they depend on the love and support of social workers, our case managers, our therapists,” said Peck. “They've lost a lot of those relationships.”
He said the children may have a loving foster family but they still lost other relationships outside of it like at school or with the agency.
The agency, said Peck, utilizes referral specialists who try to match the bios of the foster children to the strengths of the foster families that the agency does have.
“We are constantly looking for new foster families,” said Peck. “We have 37 active homes out of the Hazard office right now.”
He said that due, to the agency's beliefs and selective nature, it is sometimes hard to find suitable families.
“Hope Hill is a faith-based organization, we sincerely live out our values in the way that we treat our foster families and our kids and our staff,” said Peck. “We want to find families that match our values and that's not always easy. We believe kids do best when they're in an environment where people love them and care for them unconditionally.”
Hope Hill, said Peck, focuses on therapeutic foster care but offers other services such as independent living. The center, he said, will begin offering outpatient services to the region soon, and plans to bring preventive services to Hazard within the next year.
“When kids age out of the system, which is normally around 18 years of age, they can either go back to where they came from or we have a program where the kids can recommit to the state for four years,” said Peck. “The state of Kentucky will pay for their college education. What we do is, we rent an apartment for them, we fully furnish it for them, we start a savings account for them. The cool part about it is we kind of act as a supportive family would. If they're struggling in a subject, we find them tutors. If they're struggling with cleaning their apartments, we tech them life skills and how to do those things.
“When they leave our program, not only do they have hopefully a completed college education, they get to keep all of the furniture and they have a savings account established for them so it's really something we call the cycle-breaker because they're starting life ahead of almost everybody,” he said.
The center, he said, does have a few students at HCTC participating in the independent living program. Hope Hill, said Peck, is always looking for donations to help with this program, so if anyone is interested, contact their Hazard office.