116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Chani Andrews has the opportunity as a stay-at-home mom to support foster kids with specific medical needs. She’s available during the day to take them to doctor’s appointments when other foster parents might be at work.
But since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, things have changed for Andrews. Suddenly, doctor’s offices closed to everyone except the patient and a guardian, meaning Andrews can’t bring other young children with her when going to appointments, and she can’t leave her own young children alone.
“Every child in this house has special needs and extra doctor’s appointments except for the infant. I’ve had to reschedule more than once because somebody in the house has a cough and now we’re disqualified from going,” Andrews said. “I do have the time to care for medically needy children, and that’s kind of what I was in it for, but I just can’t feasibly do it with taking them to Iowa City and not being able to bring an infant along with me in a car seat.”
Andrews has been fostering for five years. Along with her foster care placements, she also has several of her own biological and adopted children.
Becoming a foster parent involves a series of background checks and training in things like CPR, becoming a mandatory reporter, managing medications and several other topics.
Children in foster care can have a variety of needs. They have usually been removed from their homes by the Iowa Department of Human Services because the home is considered an unsafe environment for children. Homes can be unsafe for any number of reasons, including neglect, abuse, drug use or failure to provide medical care.
Andrews said the struggles she’s had with meeting kids’ medical needs is only one of many unexpected outcomes of the pandemic that she’s had to navigate as a foster parent.
Pandemic-related burnout has caused some foster parents to move on from fostering or turn in their licenses for a while and take a break, according to Christa Hefel, recruitment and engagement leader for Four Oaks Foster and Adoptive Family Connections, which is contracted by the state to recruit, train, license and support Iowa’s foster and adoptive families.
“There’s constant change in numbers of currently licensed foster families. Have we seen a decrease of families throughout the COVID period? Absolutely. COVID offered lots of challenges to many families,” Hefel said.
Some of those challenges included things like not having the internet bandwidth to support multiple school-aged kids being in Zoom classes all at once, and worries about accepting new kids into a household that already has a lot of people, which could increase the chance of somebody catching the virus, according to Andrews.
“I think at the beginning, it was difficult for me to want to say yes to new placements, which had nothing to do with them, other than I was just trying to protect my family. But I did take kids in anyway, because that’s the way my heart runs,” Andrews said.
Andrews said visits between foster kids and their biological family members are often stressful, whether they were online or in-person.
“We started out at the very beginning of the pandemic with virtual things like Zoom calls. … Those were difficult because at the time I had an infant child. How can you bond with your infant over a Zoom call? The infant’s not interested in doing anything but eating the phone or pushing buttons on the computer, and doesn't understand that that's mom or dad on the other side,” she said.
Eventually Four Oaks resumed in-person visits, but Andrews said these were hard as well, because she worried that parents who really wanted to see their child might not be entirely honest about possible COVID-19 symptoms.
“That was different, asking the kids to come in from their visits to wash their hands. If they were in a public place for a visit, I might ask them to change their clothes or take a shower,” Andrews said.
Stress for foster kids
These kinds of stressors weren’t lost on the kids involved, according to Andrews.
“I think it’s affected the mental health of all kids really, but with foster kids it’s just one more unfortunate trauma. Depending on the personality of the child and how aware they are of what’s happening in the world around them, there was definite concern it seemed like, towards the beginning of the pandemic,” Andrews said. “’Are my parents going to get sick? Are my siblings who are not placed with me going to be OK? Will I be OK?’ … They’re hard questions to answer because I don’t really know the answers. It’s such a new thing for all of us.”
Overall, Andrews said she believes foster kids are resilient and flexible, even compared with her own biological and adopted children, because foster kids are used to adapting to new situations.
“I definitely have noticed, though, that kids that I’ve had for respite and in placement a year or more after the initial close down, have been more challenging. I think that can be, at least in my mind, tied to being so isolated,” Andrews said. “Some of the kids that are coming into care now seem to be a lot more anxious and have more negative behaviors, and I think that that’s not gone unnoticed by those of us who take placements on a regular basis.”
The number of children placed in foster care in Iowa has been steadily decreasing during the pandemic, from 6,540 in the second quarter of fiscal 2020 to 4,681 in the second quarter of year 2022, according to the Iowa Department of Human Services website. There currently are 2,370 licensed foster care families in Iowa, according to Hefel.
The foster care reentry rate — the percentage of children who leave foster care to be reunited with their families but eventually return to foster care — has also decreased in that time from 10.64 percent statewide to 8.41 percent.
Despite the decrease, Melissa Carlson, executive director of Families Helping Families, says she has seen more families seeking services for newly placed children as the pandemic has gone on.
“Kids were in foster care before the pandemic, and I’m sure they will be after. If not COVID there’ll be something else. It feels like every year the demand for our services is rising more and more,” Carlson said.
Families Helping Families is a Cedar Rapids based nonprofit that focuses on supporting children in foster care statewide through programs that help kids get things like clothes and shoes, as well as scholarships to participate in extracurricular activities. The nonprofit had to shut down for a few months in 2020.
Despite all the struggles foster families have faced, Hefel said Four Oaks has still been able to find a family for every child who needs somewhere to go.
There have even been some positive outcomes from the pandemic for the fostering system, such as increased training opportunities for foster parents, Hefel said.
Foster parents have to complete 30 hours of training before welcoming kids into their homes, and an additional six hours of training every year after that to keep their license. When everything moved online because of the pandemic, Hefel said Four Oaks discovered that online trainings could be offered more often than in-person trainings, and at different times of the day that better accommodate the needs of different families.
Because of the increased options, some families have been completing extra hours of training in the last couple years, Hefel said.
“We’re definitely trying to look at our positives and our opportunities that we have been able to embrace and assist our foster families with,” Hefel said. “Everybody in this stage is going through all the challenges of COVID and the best thing that we can do is look at the silver lining and try to really support those families as best we can.”
Join us for hourlong online sessions Monday through Friday about different facets of children’s mental health. Registration is free at The Gazette’s iowaideas.com
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Noon Thursday: Children's Mental Health in Law Enforcement and the Courts
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