Interview: How has the pandemic impacted Washoe County’s foster care system?
Before COVID-19 hit, Washoe County’s foster care system had a shortage of homes for children in need. The pandemic has made the problem worse. KUNR’s Kaleb Roedel spoke with Laura Caprioli with the Washoe County Human Service Agency to learn how the child welfare system is working to overcome challenges presented over the last two years.
Kaleb Roedel: Roughly how many kids are in foster care right now? And how does that compare to pre-COVID?
Laura Caprioli: So at any given time, it really varies, but around 800 is a safe number in Washoe County, in care, and coming into care each day and each week. Foster families, we currently have around 300. And so you can see the discrepancy in those two numbers and how we are really in a need for people in our community here in Washoe County to come forward and consider the possibility of becoming a foster parent.
Roedel: And why do you feel like the number of foster parents and homes has gone down during the pandemic?
Caprioli: We have a lot of families who have expressed concern about how to manage this. We have school closures. The bus system has been affected. Employment has been affected. And then, we also have those who are concerned about what it means to foster during the time of a pandemic. How will they be protected? We really try to support and educate and wrap ourselves around our families.
Roedel: Have you seen a trend of older youth being forced to exit the system because of the public health and economic crisis, especially during the early wave of the pandemic?
Caprioli: That’s something that, even pre-pandemic, we’ve struggled to adjust to and provide services for. You know, housing is such a hot topic here, because rent has increased so much, the lack of housing. And so, we have these youth who have very little connection with a primary caregiver or parent or mentor, who are aging out of the foster care system, who are faced with finding a job, finding employment and finding housing. It’s almost an impossible challenge to be faced with. And so, our youth are privy to services and support when they age out. But again, that’s something that they have to take us up on, which isn’t always easy to continue to work with a system that you’ve lived in — and a lot of these youth, for their whole lives. And so finding housing, finding stability, maintaining employment, these are all areas of concern that our aged-out foster youth continue to deal with.
Roedel: Did the pandemic lead to delays in placements and adoptions at all?
Caprioli: The court system was absolutely affected. Much of our court system has gone virtual, and it took them a while to pivot to that system. And so, there were delays there, absolutely. And so, placing children during the pandemic has created some barriers, but not ones that we haven’t been able to overcome. We have used our current resources, our current foster families, at an abundance; we’ve asked them to increase our licenses to take on more foster kids. We’ve really done an incredible job at vetting through relatives or what we call fictive kin options. And so, through that process, we’ve learned a lot. And we’ve also stretched our resources quite a bit. And so, the lack of foster homes currently is something we’re trying to tackle in our community, just to make sure that we give those that were foster parents the break and the respite that they deserve.
Roedel: So, were courtroom finalizations for adoptions being done over Zoom or over the phone as opposed to normally being done in person?
Caprioli: Yeah, they were actually — they were done by Zoom, which is incredible that the court had that option to them. I think five years ago, that would have been unheard of. Being in the courtroom is such a momentous experience, and it’s one where you can invite your loved ones in and have people celebrate really all the trial and tribulations that it is to go through the child welfare system to land to adoption. Although it is quite an accomplishment to be able to get to continue to do these things via Zoom, I do think some of our families are quite excited to get back to some normalcy in terms of celebrating what they’ve accomplished and finalization of adoptions.