AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin’s stay-at-home order bans gathering with people outside of your household, but for foster parents taking care of kids in the system, there are a lot of unknowns.
“We’re just trying to stay healthy because if I were to become ill, I’m not sure who would be able to take care of her,” one foster parent told KXAN.
She just took a child into her home three months ago, right before the spread of COVID-19.
“I work with children, and I don’t have any of my own, it’s just me and my animals,” she said. “So, it seemed like something that would be helpful to the community and that I would enjoy — to open up my house to a child in need, and help them get through this period in their life where there is a lot of transition and uncertainty.”
She never imagined the uncertainty a pandemic would bring.
The foster parent said she’s most concerned about having to venture out for the court-mandated in-person visitations with the child’s biological parents.
“With little kids, it’s a little scarier because it is more hands-on,” she said. “They want to be in your lap. They want to hug you and kiss you.”
Some counties and courts have mandated virtual visitations using apps like Skype and Facetime.
“I also see from the position of the biological parents that they are missing out on watching them grow up, and want to experience them in person and make sure that bond isn’t broken” she said. “But right now I think the health and safety of the community needs to come before that.”
She hopes virtual visits will soon be allowed everywhere, but the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services said that varies county-by-county and come at the order of the court.
“In those instances where family visitations are ordered to keep happening in-person, we are asking screening questions of the parents to make sure it’s safe,” DFPS spokesperson Marissa Gonzales said.
She said they are also cleaning the offices where visitations happen more frequently and encouraging extra hand-washing and sanitation from everyone involved.
The foster parent who spoke with KXAN said she felt like that may not be enough, especially after seeing Family Court close in Travis County.
“It looks like they have gone to take measures to protect everyone involved in a case, except not necessarily the children, the foster parents, or the people on the front lines of CPS dealing with the counties and the kids,” she said.
As for child abuse and neglect cases, DFPS is still conducting investigations and home-visits from social workers.
“Investigations are a critical portion of what we do,” she said.
Gonzales said they are educating their staff how to keep themselves and families safe, maintaining a “safe distance” and even conducting some interviews outside, if necessary.
“We are also asking those screening questions about COVID before we enter the home, and really being flexible about how we conduct those in-person interviews,” Gonzales said.
She said they also conducted a nationwide search for personal protective equipment for their staff who will have to enter residences. They expect more gloves, masks and hand sanitizer to be delivered to workers this week.
DFPS has seen calls to the Texas Abuse Hotline decrease nearly 20%.
“That doesn’t mean it’s not happening,” Gonzales explained. “We historically see that when children are out of school, because school staff are a really big part of those who report child abuse and neglect.”
She said they are encouraging the community to be vigilant.
“Even though you are at home and are looking out for the safety of your own family,” she said. “It’s important to note the Texas Abuse Hotline is still working 24/7, still taking calls and still taking reports. So, if someone suspects something may not be right, we are all required to report it.
If you would like to report an instance of abuse, call 1-800-252-5400 or click here for more information.
“We know it’s a really stressful time for many of us, especially parents who are at home with their children, with not much of an outlet for the children,” Gonzales said.
She encourages families to check out their resources for managing family stress. For those resources, click here.