Foster children during COVID-19 crisis experience multi-layered trauma

Foster mom, child trauma talk caring for children coming from unstable homes in a crisis

CORTLAND – Megan Flack and her husband, Mike Choragwicki, got licensed to be foster parents at the start of 2020 and were so excited they decked out their guest room to prepare and bought a lot of sidewalk chalk.

Then came a global pandemic, which threw a wrench into an already taxed foster care system, and they're stuck trying to create a safe and welcoming environment for the children under their care while enduring a public health crisis.

"I'm not a religious person but I really think this is what I was meant to do," Flack, 36, said.

Since she and her husband became licensed, they've fostered four children, including one 17-year-old, and fielded calls for around 15 more, the majority teenagers. For their Cortland home, however, and because Choragwicki is an elementary school teacher in Sycamore District 427, they prefer children aged zero to eight.

The coronavirus pandemic has shuttered businesses, closed school buildings and now seeped its way into the Illinois Department of Child and Family Services and private agencies, court systems and care homes already over-burdened by a fragile process of checks and balances.

Resources in short supply

For a foster child getting ready to enter into a new home, a lot of unknown comes with them, Flack said. They often don't have clothing and require last-minute trips to the store (sometimes at night, sometimes with little warning from the agency placing the child).

But due to the crisis, most stores close now by 9 p.m.

"We can no longer run to Walmart in the middle of the night and get formula and diapers," Flack said. "Amazon helps and ordering online can work, but the immediate need and things such as clothing sizes are unavailable in our town now. We no longer have any 24-hour access to medication or baby gear."

Currently, she and her husband are fostering three children: a 15-month-old, a three-year-old and a five-year-old.

The children are siblings and were initially placed in the home of Flack's neighbor down the street. The woman, a 26-year-old, can no longer care for the children full time, so Flack's agency contacted her and asked if she'd take them.

Initially, Flack and her husband had agreed to halt foster child placements for fear of further spread of the viral respiratory disease, to protect not only themselves but the children already more likely to travel from home to home.

"I felt like they needed the help," Flack said. "If I didn't what are they going to do?"

Their first foster child was a 17-year-old who they were supposed to have for three days but ended up welcoming him into their home for four weeks. The teen was one of two of their placements who, since the pandemic started, was unable to get medical check-ups such as an eye doctor appointment due to COVID-19 closures.

Compounding trauma with trauma

That doesn't even include mandated counseling or mental wellness check-ins for the foster children, normally conducted in a medical professional's office, Flack said.

"All mental health therapy is being done virtually, in the home," Flack said. "Can you imagine having to sit a four or five-year-old child down in front of a computer for behavioral health therapy? They are wiggle worms and poor kids need more than a screen."

She said the virtual counseling also makes it difficult to provide the child with complete privacy during sessions.

Court dates are being pushed back and caseworker and parental visits are virtual now, too.

On March 25, DCFS issued a guideline prohibiting all in-person supervised visitation due to public health concerns in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19. Visitation is encouraged now through the use of technology, whether video conferencing, phone calls or otherwise.

Adam Carter, Assistant Professor of Counseling at Northern Illinois University who specializes in working with children experiencing grief and trauma said the coronavirus crisis and all its disruption comes with several added layers for children already facing significant trauma.

"Trauma is cumulative and manifests itself in very different ways in different people, but it's largely a physiological response," Carter said. "Trauma takes up shop inside of our bodies. And with children we are seeing this grief process for the loss of their normalcy. But you're bringing to the table children who are already grieving the loss of normalcy."

He said children placed into foster care systems are already experiencing 'emotional fatigue' due to the removal of a parent or guardian from their life, living in a new home or around others who they do not know. Oftentimes, children can in turn rely on other fixed norms such as school structure to ground them.

"If children are in foster care it's the result of trauma and crisis," he said. "There's not a situation where someone is in foster care because things have gone well."

Per Gov. JB Pritzker's extended stay-at-home order, in-person schooling has now been prohibited for the remainder of the academic year. And on top of attempting to internalize loss of school life, time with friends and other connections, foster children have also lost the ability to have in-person supervised visitation.

Carter said the first thing to keep in mind for foster parents at a loss for how to help their children cope with what's happening in the world right now, is to first get a healthy grasp on it yourself.

"There are so many adults who have what they believe to be the best interest of that child in play," he said. "But if those adults do not have a place to process their experience, especially now, I found it to be of little benefit to try to help the child."

He said parents and foster parents alike can expect children to respond to trauma in unexpected ways: acting out behaviorally by doing something they may not normally do or regressive behavior such as wetting the bed when they're already trained otherwise.

"What children need to know, regardless of age, is that adults and caregivers are there to help take care of them and keep them safe," he said.

When asked what keeps her wanting to continue fostering with the complexities that seem to hinder her best intentions, Flack said for her, it's all about the children.

"I love these kids," she said. "It's the kids. It's cliche to say but these kids are incredible. People have a completely misconstrued view on how they are. They're resilient. They help me be more resilient. It's a beautiful and broken system."