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Foster Care System In West Virginia Struggles To Help Children During The Pandemic


The coronavirus shutdown is a major challenge for the nation's child welfare system. Reports of suspected abuse have actually fallen, but care providers say that social distancing restrictions mean even more stress for at-risk kids and families. Emily Corio with West Virginia Public Broadcasting reports.

EMILY CORIO, BYLINE: The coronavirus pandemic comes at a time when West Virginia's child welfare system already faces devastating effects from the opioid epidemic. The number of children in state care has swelled in recent years, and the need for foster families has grown. Delvin Johnson is managing as best he can at the Davis Child Emergency Shelter.


DELVIN JOHNSON: Do we have any beds for a 13-year-old male?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I'm not sure, DJ. Let me go check.

CORIO: But the beds have been full since the governor closed schools and issued a stay-at-home order in March. Johnson now helps children with online school and is trying lots of things to keep them busy.

JOHNSON: We purchased a bunch of board games. And we're cooking different meals, letting them pick what they want to eat. We just have to be able to be creative here.

CORIO: Agencies that oversee children once they enter foster care are helping kids cope in new ways. Siblings sent to different shelters are connecting through online video chats. Visitations with biological parents are happening over video calls too, but foster mom Julia Hamilton says that's not going very well for her foster child.

JULIA HAMILTON: So now it's, you know, just FaceTime calls, which is a very difficult thing to facilitate with a 3-year-old - to get them to understand, you know, why they're not able to see their parents at this time, which adds into that emotional turmoil.

CORIO: There's equal concern for children who are not in foster care but may be at risk. Angie Hamilton Thomas is with a youth treatment and foster care provider called Pressley Ridge.

ANGIE HAMILTON THOMAS: You know, if you think about kids and families being, you know, kind of more shut in, more isolated, in a lot of areas, you know, some of the mental health issues and problems that families and kids face can be escalated.

CORIO: Isolation could be part of another problem, too. Teachers and school counselors are mandatory reporters of suspected child abuse or neglect. Since schools closed in West Virginia, reports of suspected abuse or neglect are down by at least half. Treva Johnson of the Family Focused Treatment Association is seeing similar declines across the country. But as soon as children are back in school, she expects more demand for foster care.

TREVA JOHNSON: So when we've got these kids that are continuing to come into care who need a placement and there's less and less and less placements available and we know that that influx is going to continue as the pandemic slows down, I think what we're going to hear when we get the word back from our providers across the nation - it's going to be a capacity issue.

CORIO: Johnson says there are even fewer foster homes available since the pandemic began. One reason - a lack of coronavirus testing for children trying to enter new foster homes where host families may be worried about infection. But in West Virginia, training for hopeful foster parents has continued online. Nearly two dozen families log in weekly to learn from Brandi Davis of the Children's Home Society.


BRANDI DAVIS: If you remember, last session, we talked about feeling sense of guilt because they feel comfortable in their foster home.

CORIO: It turns out, this online training makes it easier for many. It's one necessity born out of the pandemic that providers want to continue even when coronavirus is no longer a threat.

For NPR News, I'm Emily Corio in Morgantown, W.Va.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIRK MAASSEN'S "SINAAI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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