By Brie Zeltner and Rachel Dissell
CLEVELAND, Ohio — Lionel scooped up his daughter, Imari, and planted a kiss on the 1-year-old’s chubby cheek, then carried her to the car that would take the baby and her brothers away from him and back to their foster home.
Trailing behind him was his partner, Carlitta, who held the hands of their chattering sons, 4-year-old Regis and 2-year-old Kenneth, as they walked across the parking lot of University Settlement’s Mead House in Slavic Village, where their weekly two-hour visits are held.
The 22-year-old mother helped tuck the boys into their carseats and waved goodbye, then turned to straighten her black shirt— “social distancing saves lives,” it read — and dab a tear from her eye.
The end of the family’s visit is always hard.
But it’s not as hard as the month long stretch when, because of the coronavirus, Lionel and Carlitta, whom ideastream agreed to identify only by their first names, couldn’t see their children in person.
For the more than 3,000 Cuyahoga County children in foster care and their foster parents and families, the pandemic has made visitation, the reunification process and maintaining familial bonds far more complicated. Families and county workers must balance the need to maintain the ties between parent and child while protecting everyone in the system from getting sick. As of late August, 15 children in foster care had tested positive for the coronavirus; all have recovered. It’s unknown how many foster and biological family members have tested positive.
With the county’s Juvenile Court mostly closed for the spring, parents eager to complete the required steps to reunite with their children have seen court dates pushed back. Some who were on the cusp of reunification are still waiting, months later, to finish the process.
Foster parents who can’t work from home struggle to find day care and academic help for the children in their care. Some, particularly those without partners, have been forced to consider returning their foster children to the care of the county.
And many biological parents have gone months with only telephone and video visits, or no visits at all, which disrupts their ability to build and maintain a stable and nurturing relationship with their children during separation. That’s a particular problem for the more than 800 children under the age of 3 in foster care who are too young to benefit from the technology.
“It was hard because I really wanted to see them,” Carlitta said of the first time she and Lionel were forced to miss an in-person visit.
“I’m telling you, I couldn’t even be around her,” said Lionel, 29. “It was unbearable… She wanted to see her children.”
Visits go virtual
Though the Cuyahoga County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) never banned in-person visits during the pandemic, virtual visits were encouraged whenever possible, said Jacqueline McCray, deputy director of the agency. Because DCFS partners with community organizations such as University Settlement to provide space for in-person visitation, and many of these partners shut down in March and April, about half of visits went virtual during that time, she said.
Families used Skype, Facetime and other online video platforms when possible, or had telephone visits when video proved too difficult, McCray said.
For many families in the Slavic Village area, though, virtual visits didn’t work out very well, said Karla Trammell, University Settlement’s system of care manager.
“We had a lot of families that were not getting their virtual visitations,” said Trammell, whose Family to Family team contacted parents who usually had weekly in-person visits to make sure they were able to connect with their kids. “We’ve had families who have come back …who didn’t see their kids for two months.”
University Settlement offered help to overcome the problem with access to technology, but no one took them up on it, she said. Parents with children in different foster families also struggled with the logistics of scheduling multiple video calls each week with different foster families.
And for the youngest children, the video visits were far from ideal.
“There’s not much you can really do for a newborn baby on Facetime besides see them,” Trammell said.
Impact on bonding
For children 1 and younger who are still in the process of forming an attachment to their parents, loss of physical contact can be particularly damaging to the relationship.
“It’s especially important to form good bonds at that age,” said Dr. Catherine Lipman, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at University Hospitals who works with foster families. “It establishes social and emotional health then and how to have appropriate relationships… going forward.”
One Cleveland-area foster mother, who asked to be anonymous, said that while the 1-year-old girl in her custody is getting regular video calls with her parents, she can see their relationship suffering. “I feel like for our foster baby, that she’s missing out on having that connection with her family. I feel a lot of guilt for that.”
Bonding — which happens when parents hold, comfort, cradle, talk to and feed their babies — helps to release hormones and other chemicals in the brain that calm and regulate mood and encourage brain growth, research shows.
Recognizing this, DCFS has tried to maintain in-person visits as much as possible for this age group, McCray said. “Those are definitely the ones that we’ve really tried to make sure there’s some face-to-face contact.”
It’s a difficult balance, DCFS officials said, as they try to safeguard the health of everyone involved, including county workers who usually conduct in-home visits with families.
Beth Uchaker, a foster mother to a 2-year-old in Lakewood, said the thought of in-person visitation has been scary because she has medically fragile children in her home who may be more susceptible to the virus.
“You don’t know how the other families are going to take the precautions and… be careful, so you’re afraid,” she said. “The thing is that they’re entitled to see their child and they’ve got to be just as freaked out as I am.”
Uchaker worries that resuming visits for her foster child, who hasn’t seen his mother since the second week of February, will be difficult. “He’s so stable right now and is doing so well,” she said. “All of those changes and stresses affect them so deeply.”
For parents like Lionel and Carlitta, it’s been hard to get information on what will happen with their court cases since there have been no hearings, in-person or virtually, since February, according to the court’s docket.
Custody hearings for children in foster care are held at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court, which closed except for essential staff on March 16, postponing hearings in most cases.
In May, a court order outlined procedures for virtual hearings, at the discretion of judges and magistrates. Since April, the court has allowed “essential” in-person hearings in cases involving juveniles who are incarcerated and an updated order eased restrictions further in June.
Magistrates and judges have discretion whether to hold remote hearings.
“And they are so backlogged that they have to… kind of try to catch up and still deal with the new cases that are coming before the court,” Trammell said.
The county took custody of Lionel and Carlitta’s three children in October of 2019, when police raided the home where Carlitta and the children were living. Workers said they found evidence of unsafe conditions, including illegal drugs and trafficking by other people who lived there. Both parents admitted to using alcohol and marijuana and county workers said they needed to work to create a safer environment for the children and to address one child’s developmental delays.
Now, they live in their own home and Lionel has a job at a packing and shipping warehouse in Solon.
Before the pandemic, they hoped to be reunited with their children by September 29th. Now, that date is uncertain, and the couple isn’t sure if they’ll be granted an extension should they fail to complete all of the court’s requirements before then.
The pandemic has made each step seem harder, they said. Agencies that did drug-use assessments were shuttered for some time before going virtual. The process of applying and interviewing for a job often takes longer.
“[I]t’s like [one] roadblock after another and I’m doing everything I can,” Lionel said, his voice breaking.
“It’s hard because sometimes they do act like we not trying,” Carlitta added. “But it’s not our fault. It’s out of our control.”
Other parents who had visits at University Settlement have encountered obstacles to reunification, Trammell said. A father who was one court date away from being reunited with his son when the pandemic began was frustrated when his visits were halted and court hearings were canceled. Trammell said she hasn’t heard from him since.
Still, Lionel and Carlitta are grateful to be able to hold the kids and play with them again, even if they have to do so wearing masks. One-year-old Imari was afraid of Lionel when she first saw him in a mask, he said, and 4-year-old Regis is always trying to take his off.
“I love it, though,” Carlitta said, grinning. “It’s so fun seeing them.”
“It would be better if they was at home,” Lionel said.
Children’s services officials, community service agencies, foster parents and biological parents have had to navigate COVID-19 in order to facilitate important bonding visits for families.
A sign hangs on the wall in the visitation room at University Settlement’s Mead House, which has reopened to family visitations after being shut down for at least two months. The room is now emptier; parents have to get toys from a hallway cart and they are removed and sanitized afterward and masks must be worn during visits.