Monday, August 9, 2021

COVID-19 Pandemic and Shutdown Increases Stresses in Foster Care for Children, Birth Parents, Social Workers and Licensed Foster Care Providers


Karen S. Law

Law Offices of Karen S. Law, PLC | (703) 723 – 4385

Prepared by Alyssa Howes, paralegal, with assistance from Karen S. Law


COVID-19 Pandemic and Shutdown Increases Stresses in Foster Care for Children, Birth Parents, Social Workers and Licensed Foster Care Providers

Drug Use During Pandemic Increases the Number of Children Entering Foster Care

            According to the CDC, as of June 2020, 13% of Americans reported starting or increasing substance use as a way of managing stress or emotions caused by the pandemic (Czeisler, 2020). A reporting system called “ODMAP,” Overdose Detection Mapping Application Program, found that there was an 18% increase in overdoses nationwide during the early months of the pandemic compared to the same months in 2019. Statistics have shown that this trend continued throughout 2020. In December of 2020, the American Medical Association reported that at least 40 U.S. states have seen increases in opioid-related deaths, as well as continuing concerns for those with substance abuse disorders (Abramson, 2021).

            Mandy Owens, PhD, a psychologist and researcher at the University of Washington Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute, says that along with the sudden increase in substance use during the pandemic, she has observed an increase in both quantity and frequency of drug use. Research on drug use and overdose deaths have demonstrated that covid-related stressors, such as financial instability, loneliness, and anxiety about the virus, have contributed immensely to the increase in drug use. William Stoops, PhD, professor of behavioral science, psychiatry and psychology at the University of Kentucky says, “People are more stressed and isolated, so they make unhealthy decisions, including drinking more and taking drugs.” (Abramson, 2021).

            Although we do not yet have hard statistics, we can surmise from the increased use of substances and the general increase in poverty and homelessness during COVID-19, that more birth parents will have children removed for abandonment, abuse, and neglect. It will be challenging for them to regain custody of their children under the circumstances.

            There are also practical, as well as systemic barriers to reunification. For example, parenting reunification visits have had to be conducted remotely, not in person, due to COVID-19. Additionally, social services agencies have workers working remotely. It may be more difficult for birth parents to utilize in person services. For the most part, states have been able to adapt to the challenge of remotely conducting adoptions and foster care placements; but caseworkers in New York, for example, report that COVID-19 has made it much more difficult to do their jobs of serving the over 400,000 children currently in the system (Dodge, 2021).

Fewer Foster Parents Available

More kids have been entering the foster care system during the pandemic, but there are fewer families who are willing to take them in (Adams, 2020). Lyndsey C. Wilson, CEO of First Star, a national nonprofit that supports children in foster care, spoke to her experience during the pandemic: she has seen children transferred from foster placement to foster placement, through no fault of the child, but because the caregivers are concerned about Covid-19 (Adams, 2020). Health concerns, related to COVID-19, discourage people who want to foster children from doing so. There are many foster parents who have health issues and/or are immunocompromised, and they are apprehensive about expanding their households currently. This is a realistic concern. In Texas, for example, child welfare agencies have reported that children in foster care are contracting COVID-19 at twice the rate of the general population (Adams, 2020).

In addition to health concerns, fewer people are willing to take care of foster children during this time due to financial strain. The economic fallout of COVID-19 and the shutdown have devastated some foster parents financially, leaving them unable to take in new children. Many foster parents have experienced job loss due the pandemic. Because a stable financial situation is a requirement for fostering children, this has disqualified them from qualifying as a foster parent.

Children Aging Out Face Extra Challenges

Child welfare professionals are also concerned about teens aging out, or “emancipating,” from foster care. When the child reaches that point, between ages 18 and 21 depending on the state, local governments are no longer required to provide them financial assistance. Even before COVID-19, this transition into adulthood was a difficult period for the 20,000 emancipated foster youth each year (Dodge, 2021). During the pandemic, those aging out of foster care are faced with a great deal of problems and it is evident that many are struggling to manage. In May of 2020, FosterClub, a non-profit organization supporting youth in foster care, conducted a survey of 613 former foster youth, ages 18 to 24, to gain insight on how the pandemic was affecting young adults who were previously in the foster care system. According to the results, 65% of respondents working before the pandemic reported losing their jobs, 23% said they were experiencing housing insecurity, and only 37% said they had an adult they could turn to (Dodge, 2021)

Increasing Teen Suicide Rates and Necessity of Additional Mental Health Services

            Since the beginning of the pandemic, healthcare providers across the country have reported increases in mental-health related emergencies in adolescents. According to the CDC, between February and March of 2020, suspected suicide attempts among girls ages 12-17 was 50.6% higher than it was during the same time in 2019; among boys aged 12–17 years, suspected suicide attempt emergency department visits increased 3.7% (Yard, et al. 2021). Additionally, among adolescents ages 12–17, the proportion of emergency department visits related to mental health increased by 31% in 2020 compared to 2019. Researchers for the CDC suspect that risk factors for suicide include physical distancing (including school attendance and social contact with teachers and peers); lack of access to mental health treatment; increases in substance use; and anxiety about family health and economic problems (Yard, et al. 2021).

            Reporters for NPR spoke with providers at hospitals in seven states across the country, to investigate recent mental health trends among adolescents. All the hospitals reported that more suicidal children are visiting their hospitals, and they are in worse mental states (Chatterjee, 2021). Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis reported that the number of adolescents hospitalized after suicide attempts increased from 67 to 108, from 2019 to 2020. Hillary Blake, a pediatric psychologist at the hospital, said that October 2020 showed a 250% increase in these numbers when compared to October 2019 (Chatterjee, 2021). The pandemic has created many stress factors for children, which are increasing the risk of suicide for many. COVID-19 and the shutdown have worsened the children's mental health crisis, which was already an issue before the pandemic. For a decade, suicide rates have been going up among adolescents (Chatterjee, 2021).

            Due to the exacerbation of mental health crises among adolescents in general, one would expect that there would be an increased need for therapy and mental health services to teens in foster care. Both foster care parents and social workers will need to be proactive in obtaining the appropriate care for children who are suffering during this time.


Abramson, A. (2021, March). Substance use during the pandemic. American Psychological Association. Monitor on Psychology, 52(2).

Adams, C. (2020, December 30). Foster care crisis: More kids are entering, but fewer families are willing to take them in. NBC News.

Chatterjee, R. (2021, February 2). Child Psychiatrists Warn That The Pandemic May Be Driving Up Kids' Suicide Risk. NPR.

Czeisler, M.É., Lane, R.I., Petrosky, E., et al. (2020, August 14) Mental Health, Substance Use, and Suicidal Ideation During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, June 24–30, 2020. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 69(32), 1049–1057. DOI:

Dodge, D. (2021, January 8). Foster Care Was Always Tough. Covid-19 Made It Tougher. New York Times.

Yard ,E., Radhakrishnan, L., Ballesteros, M. F., Sheppard, M., Gates et al. (2021, June 18). Emergency Department Visits for Suspected Suicide Attempts Among Persons Aged 12–25 Years Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, January 2019–May 2021. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 70(24), 888–894. DOI:



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