Broke in Philly

Can videoconferencing replace family visits? Philly foster kids seek comfort, support and housing amid pandemic

The coronavirus shutdown is creating challenges across the child welfare system, with no past practices to review for advice.

Monkey and the Elephant in Brewerytown, which usually offers employment to youth aging out of foster care, is closed because of coronavirus mandates

Monkey and the Elephant in Brewerytown, which usually offers employment to youth aging out of foster care, is closed because of coronavirus mandates

Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

When Philadelphia started shutting down businesses in early March, Lisa Miccolis knew her work had to continue. Though her nonprofit coffee shop was forced to close, she realized its underlying purpose — helping young people as they age out of foster care — was more needed than ever.

“Youth who’ve been in foster care have experienced more trauma than most, so there is just this anxiousness,” said Miccolis, who opened Monkey & The Elephant in Brewerytown five years ago. “And we’re responding — keeping what routines we can and also making sure everyone knows:

“‘Email us, call us, text us, anytime at all. We’re available.'”

The weight of disruptions caused by the coronavirus outbreak and government response to the pandemic is falling with particular heaviness on youth in foster care.

Advocates say improvisation will be required to address the full range of problems Philadelphia’s child welfare system is confronting. Courts are operating on a drastically limited schedule. Separated families cannot visit in person and homeless shelters are bracing for possible surges in need. And the efforts required across the network of city agencies, nonprofits and advocates supporting youth in foster care look a little different than usual.

For example, Miccolis often provides emotional support to youth she hires at Monkey & The Elephant, but never before had to quell a conspiracy theory emerging from a viral disease sweeping the globe.

Shortly after the cafe shut down, Miccolis got a call from a young woman in Monkey & the Elephant’s program. “She’d read or heard that a gas was being released,” Miccolis said, “and the military was coming out,” presumably to lock the city down.

The young woman was in a panic, so Miccolis listened and responded the way a mother or big sister might, redirecting her to reliable sources of information and calming her down.

That additional, family-styled support is harder than ever to access for Philly’s roughly 4,800 youth in the city foster program.

The usual scene at Monkey and the Elephant

The usual scene at Monkey and the Elephant

Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

‘You cannot hold a child’s attention with a video screen’

All family team meetings and in-person visits in Philadelphia have been completely halted. That leaves kids, caregivers, foster parents, caseworkers and advocates only phone calls and videoconferences to make connections and move things forward.

That’s not ideal, parents’ advocates say, noting that team meetings are important to bringing about family reunifications. Zoom or Google hangouts aren’t substitutes for physical contact, they say — or accessible at all to people without the necessary technology.

One mother in the Philly region said the situation is preventing her from giving her kids the reassurance they need.

“I have a [teen-age] son and daughter,” said the woman, who requested anonymity to keep her children’s identities private and avoid any blowback for her criticism of the foster care system. “They are scared, understandably with what’s going on, and I just cannot comfort them and calm them down the same way via video chat as I could in person.”

Pat Albright, member of the national grassroots organization Every Mother Is a Working Mother Network, said the current state of affairs could be even worse for young children.

“At younger ages, you cannot hold a child’s attention with a video screen,” Albright said. “Communication, bonding and love are communicated through touch and it needs to be taken very seriously that these visitations aren’t happening.”

Some family advocates have called for kids in state care to be sent back to their parents. They point out that many youths are living in congregate care or group homes, which are antithetical to social distancing recommendations advocated by health officials.

“The fact is, most families that have been separated by child services” around the country, said Erin Miles Cloud, co-director of the nonprofit Movement for Family Power, “have been separated for reasons of poverty, not abuse. Those kids should be back with their families. Particularly now.”

Philly’s Department of Human Services recognizes the circumstance as “difficult” for the people involved, according to spokesperson Heather Keafer, who added via email that family visits “per the Order of the Philadelphia Family Court and federal and state guidance, are now to occur by video or phone.”

Teleconferencing: Yes in Pittsburgh, no in Philly

For now, the Philly courts that deal with foster youth are only maintaining a regular schedule for “shelter care” hearings, where a judge decides if a child recently removed from their family should be taken into state care for an extended period.

“Adjudication hearings,” where parents are usually allowed their first, most significant attempt at getting their kids back are suspended.

Dependency courts in Philly have also suspended usually quarterly status hearings, where youth usually get the opportunity to speak directly to a judge about concerns regarding education, clothing, food, and personal safety. Those status hearings are the only time foster youth “can feel sure they’ll be heard,” said Liam Spady, foster alum and co-chair of the Philly Homes 4 Youth Coalition.

Could any of these hearings be held via remote conferencing? Some, including Support Center for Child Advocates executive director Frank Cervone, have been calling for it as a potential solution. Some hearings are being held remotely across the state in Pittsburgh.

For cases where a child has been removed from their home, Allegheny County Family Court is currently holding the 10-day adjudicatory hearings via telephone.

Those kinds of alternative measures are “being discussed” for Philadelphia courts, according to spokesperson Martin O’Rourke. He couldn’t provide any timetable for when a normal court schedule might resume via remote conferencing, however.

The reduction in hearings raises concerns about a lack of due process rights for parents.

Stacey Witalec, spokesperson for the state court system, said adjudication hearings in Philly could be held if a parent’s attorney requests one.

The policy forces parents and attorneys to jump through an additional hoop, and comes as a surprise to Philadelphia’s parent advocates.

Kathleen Creamer, managing attorney of the family advocacy unit for Community Legal Services, said CLS received no notice that 10-day adjudicatory hearings could be requested.

She does credit the court for resolving one important issue. Family reunifications, she said, are now going forward  in cases where all parties agree to it.

Singage at Monkey and The Elephant relays its mission to customers

Singage at Monkey and The Elephant relays its mission to customers

Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

Still making payroll, thanks to charity

Video chats are one way Miccolis is keeping things rolling at the Monkey & The Elephant. Weekly staff meetings are being held that way, along with ongoing training her program normally provides.

And Miccolis is still paying her employees. A funder, she said, called without any prompting to offer money so she can make payroll for a month, even without the influx of revenue the cafe usually provides.

“This will provide us breathing space,” she said, to help prepare for whatever comes next. She plans to continue providing emotional support and advice for her charges as long as she’s able.

Miccolis said she understood the pandemic had rendered everyone’s jobs and routines less stable, but added that disruption can weigh especially hard on foster youth, who suffer more trauma than the general population.

“The experience I’ve had here with people in the program is that any perceived threat, particularly to their paycheck, can cause them to react with a lot of fear and anger,” Miccolis said.

Filing for unemployment can be challenging or just plain scary if you’ve never done it before, said Miccolis. So if it comes to that — as it has for a record number of people across Pennsylvania this month — she’ll be there to help.

Uptick in youth seeking help with housing

Covenant House Pennsylvania, which provides services like shelter and goal planning to youth experiencing homelessness, is also trying to prepare for the weeks ahead, said executive director Jen Weikert.

“It’s hard,” Weikert said, “because there is no handbook for this. It is unprecedented.”

The organization is bracing for a potential influx of youth swept into homelessness by the closure of restaurants and all non-life sustaining businesses. Close to 45% of youth coming to Covenant House for shelter have spent time in the foster system, according to a 2019 report.

Philadelphia has frozen evictions during the pandemic lockdown. But Shani Meacham, a vice president at Valley Youth House in Center City, said she’s already seen an uptick in youth seeking services.

While a typical day might include 9 or 10 people seeking services, Meacham said, at one point last week Valley Youth received more than double that: 25 inquiries in 24 hours.

She expects the increase to continue, especially because couch surfing — known as a common stopgap for youths trying to avoid homelessness — is not quarantine-friendly.

“The need in homeless services is always greater than the supply,” Meacham said.

Her staff has been delivering more phones and cards with minutes on them to youth, making sure that, in the coming days, those in need can communicate.

The sensation is familiar to the Monkey & the Elephant’s Miccolis, who is maintaining a new schedule — and is ready for her phone to ring.

Want some more? Explore other Broke in Philly stories.

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