Feature Photo: (From left) Emily Thibeaux, Heather Meylian and Ellen Romero speak about their experience fostering during a pandemic. These foster parents learned how to adapt to changes in the foster care system caused by COVID-19. Photo by Harley Sagrera.
Local foster families had to quickly adjust to new restrictions created by the foster care system in Louisiana because of the pandemic.
In March 2020, the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) made changes to the way foster care procedures, such as court hearings and visitations with birth parents, were conducted. These procedures transitioned from being in-person to online, either by phone or on Zoom, a change challenging for many foster families, according to Heather Meylian, a Foster Parent Partner at The Extra Mile.
Meylian said that when the pandemic began, she was fostering two children ages 1 and 3. The children had weekly visits with their birth parents and a plan for “reunification,” the process in which foster children are reunited with their biological families, was being worked on. According to Meylian, she was initially worried about how weekly visitations and reunification would be affected by new restrictions.
“Our visits on our side were a little chaotic because trying to get them to sit in front of a screen that didn’t have a game on it, it just had faces of their brothers, their very rambunctious older brothers, was quite the challenge,” Meylian said.
Court hearings have also been a disappointment since they are no longer in person, according to Emily Thibeaux who has fostered for nine months. Thibeaux said that the biological parents were not participating as much with the court hearings through Zoom.
“The courts that have been Zoom based, their parents have not participated. And I have wondered, if those were still in person, would they have gone,” Thibeaux said.
Ellen Romero, who has fostered for nine years, said that one of the biggest challenges for her was not being able to do fun activities with the children in her care.
“We usually go places with them. Usually they come and they are not used to going places at most homes. They really enjoy that and that has really been a bummer with the pandemic,” Romero said.
Meylian said that she noticed fewer school-age children coming into foster care. She believes this is because children were no longer in schools, and issues in the home may have gone unnoticed. Meylian said she wonders if schools reopening will cause an increase in the number of children that are brought into foster care.
“We are actually kind of thinking now that [if] school is going back we are probably going to, unfortunately, get a lot of calls and start having some long-term issues because it has been so long since anybody’s been able to really have eyes on the kids,” Meylian said.
There was also an increase in respite calls during the pandemic, according to Meylian. Respite care is when a foster family takes in children from another foster home because the primary home needs a break. Meylian said this was probably because foster parents were with the children all day.
Meylian said that sometimes children have experienced trauma and were unable to go to therapy, or even go on fun trips with their foster families for a while. This made life difficult for the child and the foster family that took care of them, according to Meylian.
On a positive note, Thibeaux said that she was grateful for the increased amount of time that her family spent together because everyone was home all the time. She said she believed that this may have helped with the bond between her family and her foster children.
Also, since everything was being held on Zoom, foster parents found it easier to have regular visitations online rather than in person, according to Meylian. Some foster parents were able to offer more visitations since meetings could happen at home, which Meylian said she believed probably helped to improve the relationship between the birth parent, the child and the foster parent.
“There is a lot involved in foster care. A lot of people think that ‘oh you just take in a child and you just hold onto them and babysit them for a little while and then you either adopt them or they go home, and it is simple like that.’ And it is not at all simple like that,” Meylian said.