British Columbia

'It's heartbreaking': Ministry pauses visits between foster kids and family during pandemic 

Family members are temporarily banned from physically visiting their children in foster care during the COVID-19 crisis. Advocates say the move is heartbreaking but neccesary.

Government says families can visit virtually through Skype or telephone

Soraya Bellou, a former youth in care and now advocate with Fostering Change, says the coronavirus precautions, while necessary, are putting children and youth who have little support at risk.  (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

The Ministry of Children and Family Development is suspending visits between children and youth in care and their biological family members, in an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus. 

It's a move that one advocate calls hard but necessary.

It's heartbreaking," said Jennifer Charlesworth, British Columbia's representative for children and youth.

While she understands that families and kids benefit from ongoing connection and are suffering without it, she also sees that the pandemic has created a challenge. 

"The recommendations from the provincial health office around physical distancing ... have brought them to this place," Charlesworth said. 

For its part, MCFD says the decision to temporarily pause in-person visits between children and youth in care and family was made by the provincial director of child welfare under that office's legal authority.

In a statement to CBC, the ministry said it is supporting virtual visits through Skype and by telephone and that exceptions can be made for special circumstances.

The ministry says the measures are based on the latest recommendations from the provincial health oficer.

Drop in abuse calls

Charlesworth fears that the crisis could bring more violence into the homes of vulnerable children, since adults are stressed, kids are at home all day, some parents have lost jobs and are facing a very uncertain future.

However, in comparison to last year during the same time period, the number of calls to MCFD to report abuse has dropped somewhat. From March 3 to March 17, 2019, there were 16,826 protection calls and this year, in the same weeks, there were 16,342 calls. 

She and other advocates also worry about youth in care being isolated since many have limited family support, and now do not have the support of school or regular in-person visits with their youth workers.

Jennifer Charlesworth, British Columbia’s representative for children and youth, says she feels for the youth and children, their workers and the family members who are affected by the pause put on visits during the COVID-19 crisis. (Office of the Representative for Children and Youth)

"You've got a heightened vulnerability now that you've got a pandemic," Charlesworth said. 

Soraya Bellou, a former youth in care and now youth advocate with Fostering Change, worried that the needs of youth in care and those who have '"aged out" — meaning those who have reached 19 and are no longer eligible for certain government supports — would be swept aside during the crisis.

"They weren't sure if they were going to be aging out and kicked out onto the streets during the pandemic, if they were going to be essentially left for dead, " Bellou said. 

Help from province 

In order to get support from their guardian, the government, youth in care living on their own need to prove they are in contact with youth workers, are going to therapy, have work and going to school, all of which has been stripped away since the pandemic hit B.C.

Fostering Change, petitioned the B.C. government to step in to support youth in care and those aging out.

This week it did. 

The province announced it would extend supports to help youth in care during the pandemic. In a statement,  MCFD said youth in care will not age out of services during the COVID-19 crisis and those who have recently aged out will get extra assistance.

"We have to step up urgently to support those young people during these times, because there is so much greater risk for homelessness, substance use problems and overdoses and exploitation," Charlesworth said. 

Jennifer also wants assurances that youth who may be exposed to the virus are getting the care they need and have a place to go if they do get sick. 

"It matters every day regardless of whether the crisis happened or not, that we support these young people, but man it really, really matters now."

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