Recent stay-at-home and social distancing orders, intended to keep people safe, are causing new challenges for a growing number of families in recovery. Reports coming in from agencies across the country show that many parents are being denied supervised visits with their children in foster care due to COVID-19 fears. Some, it is feared, may lose their custody rights entirely in the process.
Why Visitation Is Being Curtailed
In the absence of uniform guidance on parental visitation during the national pandemic, child protective services agencies across the country have often been left to make visitation decisions on a case-by-case basis. During active lockdowns, many agencies resorted to parental visits remotely via video chat, but this strategy has proven inadequate for younger children or those with special needs who don't understand why they can't see and touch their parents in person.
Even as some regions begin lessening restrictions, the lingering threat of infection has prompted some agencies to continue restricting in-person visitations in situations believed to be at high risk. For example, if a foster parent is at elevated risk for complications due to COVID, she might be reluctant to allow the children to come back into her home after visiting their parents. In such cases, the agency may lean in favor of the foster parent, to the detriment of the natural parent and the child who doesn't understand the dangers.
Implications and Dangers for the Future
While arranging visitation during a pandemic is certainly a complicated issue with many variables, separating foster children from their biological parents for extended periods could have multiple negative repercussions for families attempting to reconcile. Some of the concerns:
· The extended separation could negatively affect the mental health of both children and parents. At-risk or troubled children, as well as younger children, could feel the separation as abandonment, causing a variety of mental health symptoms. Parents separated from their children could experience emotional trauma, as well.
· The parent-child bond could be inordinately weakened. The longer a child remains separated from a parent, the more difficult it may be for the child-parent bond to be restored. This danger is exacerbated by the fact that many therapeutic services have also been put on hold by the pandemic.
· In some cases, legal custody rights may also be threatened. The Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) requires agencies to file for termination of parental rights once a child has been in foster care for 15 of the past 22 months. At present, the law doesn't account for exceptions due to pandemic. If the restoration process for these families continues to be suspended, many parents may lose legal custody of their children through no fault of their own—only because they were unfortunate enough not to be living under the same roof when the pandemic struck.
The question of parental visitation during a high-risk pandemic is not an easy one to solve. No one wants to endanger anyone else's safety. However, there are alternatives that many agencies so far haven't considered. A growing body of scientific evidence suggests, for example, that outdoor interactions with proper precautions (e.g., a mask) greatly reduces the risk of spreading the virus. Supervised outdoor visitations could be conducted with relative safety with certain ground rules in place.
If your parental custody rights have been jeopardized or infringed on due to the pandemic or other unfortunate circumstances, hiring an experienced New Jersey family attorney can help you reclaim those rights while motivating the agencies to come up with safer alternatives. Call the Lento Law Firm at 888-535-3686 to discuss your options.