Credit: Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital

The shutdown of all Philadelphia government services deemed nonessential during the pandemic is worrying child and parent advocates, who see hundreds of foster youth potentially paying a price.

“It’s unfolding,” said Frank Cervone, executive director of the Support Center For Child Advocates, a nonprofit that recruits and trains volunteer lawyers to represent youth in court, “but I’m concerned about the safety of kids, and about slowdowns in family reunifications.”

Department of Human Services’ child welfare investigators are considered essential personnel and are working normal schedules — while incorporating protocols to prevent coronavirus spread, like handwashing and maintaining 6 feet of distance when they can. But the Pa. Supreme Court, responding to a request from Philadelphia’s President Judge, issued an emergency judicial order allowing local courts to suspend various court proceedings through April 6.

Dependency court, where the fates of foster youth are determined, is now only holding “shelter care” hearings, which occur within three days of a child’s removal from their family home and require the city to show cause for removal.

The most pressing issue, advocates say, is that all the other hearings vital to child safety and parental rights have been suspended.

Status hearings usually occur every 90 days, Cervone said, covering every aspect of a foster youth’s life, including school, medical needs and safety. “If status hearings don’t occur, the government can’t show it is meeting its most basic responsibility of keeping its wards safe,” said Cervone. “Because we know sometimes kids can be abused while in care.”

There were just over 4,800 youth in Philly foster care in September 2019, according to the latest DHS report, each of whom would normally undergo four status hearings in a year. That suggests as many as 1,100 status hearings could be skipped during the shutdown.

“That was the only time you felt heard,” said foster alum Liam Spady, now co-chair of the Philly Homes 4 Youth Coalition, about status hearings. “You can tell your case manager something, but they have so many cases. When you’re in front of the court, that is something that will be followed through on. They provide the youth a voice, and some decision about the plans that will be applied to them.”

Cathleen Palm, founder of the Center for Children’s Justice, which advocates for the protection of children, agreed. “There are safety concerns for kids,” she said. “[F]or foster youth in particular there is a kind of cascading effect in which this can really impact every part of a child’s life.”

Along with the suspension of court hearings, additional issues loom, including projected delays in reuniting kids with parents, the safety of DHS workers and the families they interact with, and potential extra stresses on older foster youth.

Advocates: This will have lasting consequences

Parents expecting to be reunited with their children are also facing major delays.

Roughly 100 family reunifications in Philadelphia could be delayed by the shutdown, per data from PA Partnerships for Children, a nonprofit devoted to promoting child welfare.

If safe, getting kids back together with their parents is considered vitally important by child welfare experts. Stats show that youth in foster care experience far worse outcomes — including higher rates of poverty, depression and even homelessness — than those who grow up with their birth families.

Reunification can be a long process.

At the initial “shelter care” hearing, where the city passes a low bar to prove it’s appropriate to take a child into government custody, parents don’t have to be present. Parents do receive legal counsel at the next hearing, which usually occurs after 10 days and includes more room for testimony.

Right now, though, those proceedings aren’t happening at all.

Parents who aren’t reunited with their kids at the 10-day adjudication hearing embark on a much more complicated process. It’s shepherded along by regular meetings with caseworkers to determine the steps toward demonstrating a safe environment for kids. But during the lockdown, the city has stopped holding these so-called “team meeting” sessions. DHS Communications Director Heather Keafer said they’ll resume when the city is no longer on “essential status.”

Despite concerns, many parent and child advocates understand why the court and city have taken these steps as they deal with the pandemic.

“I understand — and even agree with — what they’ve done in this initial decision,” said Kathleen Creamer, managing attorney of the Family Advocacy Unit at Community Legal Services, which represents many parents in dependency court cases. “But our hope is that there are plans being made to get these hearings happening again, to protect both parents and children, in the event this crisis lasts longer than April 6.”

Teleconferenced hearings are one possible solution. The court order earlier this week did authorize the use of “advanced communication technology” to conduct proceedings. But details haven’t yet been worked out.

Keafer, from DHS, stated in an email that the entire situation is evolving and changes could be announced as it winds on.

“Court leadership is talking about contingency plans to change or adapt the way we do certain things,” said court spokesman Gabriel Roberts, “but right now those are discussions.”

Palm, of the Center for Children’s Justice, expressed the need for a “Plan B,” and stressed that the passage of time feels different for youth.

“In the lifebook of a child,” she said, “the chapters are short. They go by fast, and every page has effects on their whole life story. This slowdown will have [lasting] consequences.”

Coronavirus respiratory disease means worries about asthma

Early this week, DHS administrators met to discuss safety issues involving kids, families and workers.

“I was very pleased to see the city and workers coming together,” said David Wilson, board member at Local 2187, which represents city social workers, “and that the city was very proactive in terms of addressing worker safety.”

For instance, staff with duties that put them at “high risk” of coronavirus transmission have been given the option to potentially “opt out” of work that might increase their exposure.

DHS’s Keafer noted the whole situation is “rapidly developing” and plans or protocols could be redrawn as things unfold.

The brunt of the crisis, however, appears set to fall on foster youth themselves.

For those aged 18 to 21 years old, who’ve opted to stay in state care as they transition to adulthood, there’s the added quandary of needing to go to work.

Many of these young adults have jobs in warehouses and packaging businesses, or other low-wage positions that’ve forced them to live “paycheck to paycheck,” said Sara Schwartz, director of communications and development at C.B. Community Schools, which serve foster youth aged 14 to 21.

Economic necessity will likely drive them to continue working no matter the health and safety concerns, she said.

When it comes to health, foster youth are already a high risk population — “We know foster youth have greater mental and medical health needs,” Schwartz said — especially when it comes to asthma.

While asthma afflicts 8% of the general youth population, foster youth suffer rates more than twice as high, according to a 2016 study in Pediatrics. That’s a major potential problem, because COVID-19, the sickness caused by the coronavirus, is known to cause respiratory issues.

To advocates, the early days of serving foster youth in the time of coronavirus look all too familiar.

“Society has never really protected its children,” said Palm, noting that it is only relatively recently, in the 1970s, that child abuse started to be recognized as a signifcant problem.

“When you look at the full scope of this,” Palm said, “you can really see how foster kids are at the bottom of the totem pole.”

Steve is a freelance writer and investigative reporter at Resolve Philadelphia, a collaborative journalism project focused on problems and solutions. He has served as a contributing editor for Discover,...