While most children in the country are dealing with the frustrations of missing their friends, a hiatus in sports seasons, and closed playgrounds, others worry about the very real possibility of homelessness, abuse, or neglect. Most of all, they face the fear and uncertainty of wondering if they are alone.
This is a fear no child should ever endure. As we stay home to protect the medically fragile and elderly, we can’t forget this other highly vulnerable group.
I won’t parse words: The number of children in foster care will dramatically increase because of the coronavirus pandemic. It will upend the lives of countless children and families across the country. Like any worldwide crisis or natural disaster, the pandemic has amplified the vulnerability of the already vulnerable and will disproportionately impact them.
The current circumstances have brought further financial and emotional strain on families living paycheck to paycheck or parents fighting addiction. Unsurprisingly, history suggests that domestic violence and child abuse worsen during disasters. Research shows that increased stress can result in substance abuse or child neglect—two factors that increase the likelihood of a child’s removal from home and placement into foster care.
Making matters worse, we expect child abuse and neglect are going unreported. Usually, evidence of child abuse would be noticed by a teacher or school nurse, but right now, at-risk children are isolated at home and out of sight.
Plus, shelter-in-place orders, job losses, and the closing of courts make it harder for biological families to regain custody of their children. Many children who were likely to be reunited with their biological parents will remain in the foster care system until the pandemic is over.
At Bethany Christian Services, we are already seeing the need for more foster families. The current pool of foster parents is dwindling due to older foster parents facing an elevated risk of coronavirus infection and younger families with children not wanting to risk exposure or add one more unknown.
Undoubtedly, many families who have been considering foster care have put that decision on hold. But they are needed now, more than ever. Children in need of safe and loving homes are becoming more vulnerable. As we see an uptick in the number of children entering the system, we will not have enough homes for them unless more families step up. We do not have the luxury of waiting until the pandemic is over to act.
Some might assume that because most physical offices are temporarily closed, foster care programs are on hold as well. This is not the case. At Bethany, we are still recruiting and training families virtually, as are many other foster care providers across America.
The time for raising awareness about the foster care crisis in America is now. If you have ever thought about adopting or fostering children, we urge you: Use this extra time at home to research the process of becoming a foster parent. If you haven’t considered it before, now may be the time to look into how to offer support or get involved.
Those of us in the church should be paying particular attention to those living in unstable conditions and be ready to step in and offer assistance if we can. As daunting as this challenge is, this is a time for the Christian church to be the hands and feet of Christ for vulnerable children.
Scripture teaches us to “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” (Isa. 1:17). James, the brother of Jesus, reminds us that “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (1:27). As followers of Jesus, we are consistently called to love and serve the vulnerable.
While our government figures out how to communicate information and distribute financial relief amid this pandemic, the church is equipped to meet the needs of the community more immediately and effectively, which is exactly what we’re seeing across America. Churches are bringing groceries to the elderly, supporting healthcare workers and first responders, providing benevolence to families who have lost jobs, and facilitating vitally important community. I urge churches to also consider how to leverage their unique capacity to make a difference in the lives of hurting children.
To be clear, the Bible does not say that every Christian must foster or adopt. However, it does convey that the body of Christ is called to play a role. There are numerous ways to serve children in foster care. There is respite foster care, which is a short-term commitment to help with emergency child transitions. There is the Safe Family for Children program, which provides compassionate, caring community for isolated families. Your small group can help a foster family out by cooking meals. We also need mentors, prayer warriors, support groups for foster families, and Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs).
The coronavirus has already claimed millions of victims. Whenever the COVID-19 crisis ends, we will need homes for a different kind of victim: the additional children entering foster care over the coming weeks and months.
Despite a tenuous time in our shared history, I’ve seen much compassion, hope, and love abound. We must call attention to the vulnerabilities of children in our neighborhoods, which will lead to more compassion, hope, and love where it’s desperately needed. Unfortunately, COVID-19 will increase the number of kids in foster care, but there are things the church must do now to mitigate and prepare to help.
Chris Palusky is president and CEO of Bethany Christian Services, an international child social services organization that supports children in foster care across the country and around the world.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.
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