The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, including the Division of Health Services regulation that monitors adult care homes, is housed on the campus of the former Dorthea Dix state mental hospital in Raleigh. Frank Taylor / Carolina Public Press

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Foster families and the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services have had to be creative to protect foster children during the coronavirus pandemic.

Visits with families have moved online when possible. Families and children at higher risk for severe illness also have to be considered. The situation has also caused concern about assisting children who are now more isolated.

According to Catie Armstrong, a communications specialist for DHHS, 11,639 children were in foster care statewide as of March 31.

Jacob and Brittani Waldrip of Stanly County have three foster children, all boys, staying with them, as well as their teenage niece. The boys have been with the Waldrips for just over a year.

Their niece misses youth group but has connected with friends online, according to Brittani Waldrip. The boys, ages 3, 6 and 8, have varying levels of understanding. The youngest has enjoyed it as an extended weekend while the oldest has questions.

“I would say of the four, our 8-year-old has the most anxiety of the children in our home at this time,” Brittani said. “He’s very intelligent and very thoughtful, so he’s had questions about why we are not in school.”

In addition to missing his teachers, he “has some anxiety, and this has been another scary event that he’s having to process and work through.”

They already used Skype sometimes to talk with their biological family before the pandemic.

“The boys, of course, miss being able to see Mom and Dad, but we’re doing what we can, sending pictures and little updates and what we’re doing throughout the day,” Brittani Waldrip said.

The couple said they have felt supported by the Stanly County Department of Social Services.

“I work at a church as an associate pastor, so I’ve seen the leadership side and how you have to adapt and change and figure out what this even looks like right now,” Jacob Waldrip said.

Brittani and Jacob Waldrip are foster parents living in Stanly County. Photo courtesy of the Waldrips

“And Brittani does the same in her position as a school counselor. So we personally have a lot of grace for those making decisions.”

The family was “heartbroken” when baseball was canceled after one practice, as the family had anticipated the season, Brittani Waldrip said. They’ve spent time hunting for crawfish in a nearby creek and building a playhouse.

Charles P. Lycett, director of the Division of Social Services in the Dare County Department of Health and Human Services, said statewide numbers of child abuse and neglect reports have declined as children have been away from adults who might report signs of abuse.

“Our staff have had conversations with foster parents about caring for a foster child who may test positive for COVID-19,” Lycett said via email, referring to the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

“These are not one-time discussions, as these are difficult times for foster families. They are provided with opportunities to share their feelings and thoughts about the situation and their response. They are weighing decisions about the safety and well-being of family and that of the foster child they are parenting. For many of our children, we are worried about the trauma that can be caused by excluding them from the family if they are positive.”

Lycett said the agency advises families who have a child who has tested positive for the coronavirus to quarantine the entire family and listen to guidance from their doctor. Lycett said the children receive masks if necessary.

Lisa Cauley, deputy director of child welfare services at DHHS, said the state has worked to provide telehealth options for foster children. Considerations have been made for those ages 18-21, including those who were in college when schools shut down.

Adults who are training to become foster parents can also participate in online learning.

Distributing information about basic services has been one of Cauley’s priorities, to make sure families in need know that assistance is available.

While some foster families have decided not to accept new children due to the coronavirus, many families are still accepting new placements, Cauley said.

The state found two residential child care facilities willing to take foster children who have been exposed to the coronavirus if necessary, giving the children a safe place while reducing exposure to other people.

Cauley said community members can reach out to parents.

“If you really think about it, you have people less connected to each other, and social connections for parents are one of the things that really protect children because it gives parents people to talk to, and that relieves stress,” Cauley said.

She encouraged anyone with concerns to contact Child Protective Services.

Adults can also apply to be a foster parent or guardian ad litem or to serve in child welfare jobs.

Jacob Waldrip said people should remember that this is a challenge for biological parents, as well. Both he and Brittani Waldrip want the children to feel peace.

“When I think back to 9/11, I was 10 years old,” Jacob Waldrip said. “We did not sit down as a family and watch the news constantly, the news cycle. I can remember watching President (George W.) Bush giving a speech that night, but other than that, I remember feeling loved and cared for and protected.”

Brittani Waldrip agreed.

“There have definitely been a lot of good surprises — lots of people from church, the community and school loving on us, surprising us, dropping little things off, tagging our driveway with chalk,” she said.

“The boys get really excited by that, and it helps remind them how loved they are by our family, community, school and teachers.”

Imari Scarbrough

Imari Scarbrough is a contributing writer to Carolina Public Press. Email her at imari.scarbrough@gmail.com

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