Pandemic puts hold on adoptions, family reunifications
Fewer DCF-involved cases processed last year amid court closures
THE CHILDREN INVOLVED with the Department of Children and Families are already some of the most unsettled in the state. Now, the pandemic has further delayed many of these kids’ chances to land in a permanent home, whether with their parent or with a new family.
The number of DCF-involved adoptions finalized in Massachusetts has dropped during the pandemic, as has the number of reunifications, in which children are returned to their family. A major reason is COVID-related court shutdowns. The delays are raising concerns from some advocates who worry that children are taking longer to find permanent homes. Yet at the same time, the process of moving forward with adoptions right now also worries some, as trials are being held virtually on matters that have permanent impacts on children’s lives.
“There are huge due process implications with terminating a parent’s rights and permanently severing the connection a child has with the parent over Zoom,” said Victoria Bleier, senior trial counsel at the Committee for Public Counsel Services, which represents DCF-involved parents and children.
According to quarterly reports from the Department of Children and Families, there were between 120 and 170 adoptions legalized in each quarter of 2020. In contrast, in the five previous quarters since October 2018, there was only one quarter where the number of adoptions dropped below 200. The low point was in April through June of 2020, with just 122 adoptions – compared to 264 in the same quarter in 2019.
It is not only adoptions that are being delayed, but also the process of returning a child to their parent’s home, which also requires judicial approval. Each quarter from July 2018 through December 2019, there were between 780 and 900 reunifications, according to DCF’s quarterly reports. In each quarter of 2020, the number of reunifications ranged from around 580 to 740.
While courts have held emergency hearings throughout the pandemic, trials in care and protection matters, like adoptions and reunifications, were suspended entirely from March 17 to July 13, 2020, at the start of the COVID pandemic. These cases then resumed, virtually and in-person, but were stopped again November 27 amid the winter surge of COVID cases. Only emergencies were heard through January 11, 2021, when other cases resumed both virtually and in person.
Those who work in the system say the closures have clearly led to postponements. Noryn Resnick volunteers as a case reviewer for DCF and is executive director of HelpOurKids in Amherst, which provides “extras” like sports equipment to foster children. Resnick said even pre-pandemic, the courts often got backed up. With COVID, she said, “Adoptions were put on hold. Everything just stopped.”
Resnick knows of one case where a couple took in five and six-year-old siblings in preparation for an adoption, but “a year later, nothing’s finalized.”
Bleier said she has been trying to work issues out with DCF informally, but ultimately a judge is needed. She had one case where a grandparent was fostering a child, and DCF allowed the mother to move back in with them – but a December hearing to grant the mother custody was postponed until February. “Day to day, things probably didn’t look a lot different after the custody transfer, but my guess is everyone breathed a bit easier knowing the legal decision-making was back in her control,” Bleier said.
When parents and DCF disagree on the steps needed to move toward reunification, a judge can be asked to decide the appropriate course of action. “When weren’t able to access the court, we weren’t able to rely on that in same way we were before,” Bleier said.
The format of virtual hearings also causes challenges.
Bleier said it can be confusing for parents to access a hearing involving multiple parties through Zoom on a cell phone. Clients do not have easy access to their attorney, as they would if they were sitting next to each other in court. It can also be harder to evaluate the credibility of witnesses virtually.
“That’s something I find disturbing just because of the permanency of the decision, and the difficulty Zoom trials have for families in that position,” Bleier said.
Another issue, outside of the courts, is that the process of reaching permanency can be delayed because of the pandemic’s impact on DCF, service agencies, and the family.
June Ameen, policy director at Friends of Children, which advocates for foster children, said parents seeking custody may be unable to fulfill the requirements of their DCF action plan because it involves services that have been unavailable or difficult to access due to COVID-19. Parents may not have access to required classes or may not be able to visit their child. Bader-Martin said due to COVID, parents may not be working, which makes it harder to maintain the resources they need to care for a child.
Jane Lyons, executive director of Friends of Children, said because DCF has been limiting in-person social work visits, that can also delay the process of returning a child to their family. “If you don’t have workers going into parent and foster placement homes, how do you assess safety, well-being and progress toward permanency?” she asked.Bleier noted that visitation has been a problem throughout the pandemic, as DCF restricted parents’ ability to visit with their child in person. Even once visits resumed last summer, in-person visits were frequently interspersed with virtual visits, making it hard for parents to develop the relationships needed for a child to return.
“It’s a tough thing to have a visit over a screen with a baby,” she said.