On the morning of May 14, advocates and supporters from around the country dialed into a virtual hearing taking place in Illinois. The argument was over a blanket decision made by the state department of human services banning in-person supervised visitation between parents and children in foster care.
Many of these spectators were watching from outside Illinois, having no direct ties to the plaintiffs or the state. Although the findings from this hearing only directly impact Illinois, the issue at hand is one that affects parents with child welfare involvement across the United States. It is an issue that is causing separated families immense, ongoing strife, and has the potential to inflict irreparable long-term damage to parents’ cases. It is also spotlighting and deepening the racial, ethnic, and class divides that have long plagued the U.S. child welfare system.
Child welfare agencies are mostly governed at state and jurisdictional levels, which means there’s room for variance between the ways in which states and counties respond to the pandemic. But in the face of COVID-19, agencies around the nation have made decisions similar to the contested Illinois ban. Many states, such as Idaho, Connecticut, Nevada, and others have cut-off in-person supervised visitations altogether. Others, like New York and California, are making decisions on a case-by-case basis, though anecdotal reports from these states show decisions that are heavily weighted against in-person visits. Some, such as Louisiana, continue to allow in-person supervised visits on the books, but no longer have means to facilitate them after shifting to remote operations.
Eliana, a New York City mother who asked that her real name not be used in this story, described her tele-visits with her 19-month-old toddler as “really hard” and expressed particular confusion over the fact that her child continues to see an out-of-home babysitter and attend daycare three times a week, but can no longer visit with her in-person.
“I try to do what I can—put on puppet shows, read books to her, sing songs, try to get her to laugh—but any little distraction gets her eyes off that screen. If the foster mother walks through, she sees her and starts crying and wants to be picked up,” says Eliana about the remote visits, which often cannot go on for the full hour she’s allotted due to her toddler’s limited attention span.
For other families, the situation is worsened by lack of access to the technology needed to conduct remote visits, whether that’s video-enabled devices, a strong internet connection, or a data or phone minute plan that can handle frequent, long calls. It is a burden shouldered solely by poor families, and disproportionately by families of color.
For example, a survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics found that 23% of American Indian/Alaskan Native student households had either no internet or only dial-up. Black and Latinx student households followed at 19% and 17%, respectively. Black and Latinx people are also less likely to have access to cell phones and smart devices. Compounding this, Native American, Black, and Latinx families are also overrepresented in the child welfare system. The intersection of these two sets of disparities during the COVID-19 pandemic is creating a perfect storm of inequities that is driving poor families of color even further apart, and making the path to reunification much more difficult.
“[Technology] is the new mechanism of inequality,” says Blanca Gordo, who previously worked as senior researcher of artificial intelligence at the International Computer Science Institute and is a department member of the Institute for the Study of Societal Issues at the University of California-Berkeley. She argues that the integration of technology into virtually all essential operations, without concurrently making that technology affordable and available to all, has deepened historical inequities.
“Technology is not a device; it’s a way of life, everyday life, and functionality. … Digital destitution is a dynamic social [and] institutional process of alienation and a state of deprivation from functional society.”
Visitation is not the only issue facing child welfare-involved parents. Lack of access affects every aspect of a parent’s case, leaving them unable to communicate with their caseworker or counsel, participate in therapy or court mandated classes, or show up for virtual court hearings. In many jurisdictions, court-mandated services like parenting classes and therapy have gone fully virtual, excluding those who do not have the technology to participate.
“When these parents are referred to me they don’t even have email addresses. … I’m spending innumerable hours just getting them online and helping them navigate the system,” says Joyce McMillan, a New York City parent advocate and founder of peer advocacy group JMacForFamilies, about the online parenting class for child welfare-involved parents with developmental disabilities that she is teaching during the pandemic.
Lack of access to technology “hits on so many different levels for child welfare clients,” says Jeyanthi Rajaraman, chief counsel of the Family Representation Project at Legal Services of New Jersey. She describes clients having technical issues throughout every facet of the system, including visitations, accessing health care, fulfilling services, and participating in court hearings.
“The clients … struggling with medical appointments and internet access and visits and housing vouchers are all people of color, and two of them are Spanish speaking without [legal immigration] status,” adds Rajaraman.
These issues are compounded in rural communities, where access to high-speed internet is frequently spotty or unavailable, and the chasm of income inequality leaves low-income families floundering to maintain their basic needs. “I see this over and over again with clients … who are disadvantaged economically. They don’t have minutes; one day they do, and a few days later they don’t … and they can’t exercise their visitation if they can’t come up with the money for the minutes or if they live out in the middle of nowhere and there’s simply no signal,” said Gar Blume, a defense attorney in Alabama who represents children and parents with court-involved child welfare cases.
“Frankly, this is an issue for poor people in rural areas, and our entire state is rural, and there’s a disproportionate number of poor people who are members of minorities.”
“It’s not surprising in a society that discriminates based on race and class in everything that it would discriminate in terms of technology or it would discriminate in terms of child welfare, and when contact in child welfare is dependent on technology, the discrimination compounds,” says Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Welfare Reform.
In mid-April, federal funds were allocated for resourcing biological parents with devices. Some efforts have been made to get parents the technology they need to stay connected with their families and case requirements, but these have mostly taken place in big cities. In New York City, San Francisco, and Seattle for example, child services pledged to provide parents with devices. Still, implementation has been rocky.
“When we become aware a client needs a device, we reach out and request one from their caseworker, who goes up the chain of command at the foster care agencies,” says Caitlin Becker, director of social work with the Bronx Defenders. “The shutdown started in March and there have been delays in getting these devices into the hands of the parents and kids who need them.”
In Seattle, Tara Urs, special counsel for civil policy and practice at the King County Public Defender’s Office, reports that “the state was prioritizing access to visitation technology for foster parents, which was disappointing.”
“COVID-19 doesn’t make things worse per se, but it shows us how bad the system is,” says Wexler. “So now you have a system which denies people in poverty access to technology and denies the children of people in poverty access to their parents, and the harm is magnified by COVID-19 because it guarantees further separation of parents from children, and those children who are most likely to be separated are also the ones who are least likely to have the technology to cushion the blow of that separation.”
In Illinois, Judge Caroline K. Moreland dismissed the plaintiff’s complaint, thereby allowing the blanket ban on in-person visitations to stand for now.
Elizabeth Brico is a journalism fellow with TalkPoverty where she covers economic justice, and a freelance writer whose work typically covers social justice, public health, and the ways in which they intersect. In 2019, she had a fellowship with the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls researching the use of predictive analytics in the child welfare system. Her writing has appeared in a variety of outlets including The Appeal, Filter, Vice, Vox, Undark, Columbia Journalism Review, and more. Follow her on twitter @elizabethbrico and check out her writing at eb-writes.com.