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For Fresno's Foster Youth, 'Shelter In Place' Means A Struggle To Stay Connected

Andrew Nixon
Capital Public Radio
With school closed to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, foster students are some of those most impacted, especially as visits with social workers and family members move online.

It’s hard enough for any kid to shelter in place. They can't go to school, do team sports, or physically hang out with their friends. But for foster kids already struggling to maintain relationships, social distancing can be even more challenging. 

Renee is 15 years old, loves the “Twilight” series, and wants to be a social worker when she grows up. 

“I want to be that social worker that actually cares,” she said, the kind who will do whatever it takes to help foster kids. So far, she’s worked with eight different social workers. She said she only really liked one of them.

We’re calling Renee by her middle name because she's a minor in the foster system. She said the pandemic makes being a foster kid even more difficult.

“I wish people understood that it’s not easy,” Renee said. “It’s hard being away from your family and your friends mostly.”

She’s been with her current foster family for about four months, and she likes them. But Renee really misses her family. Since Fresno’s shelter-in-place order, she hasn’t seen her three younger brothers who live with her grandma.

“My brother, he just asked me the other day, he was like, ‘When are you coming over?’ And I was like ‘I don’t know,’” Renee said.

Of course, she also hasn’t been to her school, Fresno High, in weeks.

“Foster kids that are in group homes or foster homes, their only escape was school,” said Renee. “I mean, I might not have liked school, but I know it was good for me.”

Renee is one of Fresno Unified’s nearly 800 students in foster care. Tumani Heights is a manager with the district’s Department of Prevention and Intervention. She oversees staff that work with foster students every day.

“A lot of time for our foster students, school is their safehaven and so they have the ability to check in with their social worker whenever they need to or whenever they feel like they are having a rough day,” said Heights. Without school, that opportunity is gone. 

Instead, her social workers have been calling students to check in, but they say it’s harder to establish an emotional connection by phone. 

Social workers with Fresno County are also doing virtual visits, said Tricia Gonzalez, deputy director of Child Welfare Services. Over the past six weeks, they’ve completed over 3,000 video chats.

“I’m seeing that our staff are trying to check in more regularly, really have good in-depth conversations, make sure that if there’s a need, that we’re doing what we can to fill that need,” said Gonzalez.

She added that social workers are first responders too. If they get a call about abuse, they have to don protective gear and investigate as safely as possible.

“We’re doing things like taking pictures of paperwork instead of trading pens back and forth, trying to do as much of the interview as they can from six feet away, but they still have to go into the houses to do the investigation” said Gonzalez. “If there’s a removal of kids, there’s close physical contact.”

However, with schools closed, the department has received far fewer calls than usual. Teachers are mandated reporters, so if they suspect a child is being neglected or abused, they have to call child protective services, and that’s not happening as much now.

“March is usually our highest month of the year, and the first couple weeks of March we were close to setting records with the numbers we were getting,” Gonzalez said. “And then it was as if we’re on summer vacation.”

This concerns Jason Williams too. He’s spent over 20 years working with foster youth and is now a consultant and co-founder of Brainwise Solutions. 

“One of the main factors that helps kids in foster care is ongoing, consistent relationships,” said Williams. “I think in this current crisis with this physical distancing, it’s having an impact on all of us, but I think it’s going to have more of an impact on kids who already struggle to develop and maintain relationships.”

It’s certainly having an impact on Renee, the Fresno High School student. She’s been talking to her social worker and therapist from home, but she said it is harder to have a conversation that way.

She is trying to stay in touch with friends, though. Renee is president of her school’s foster kids club, and they’re scheduling video chats. Still, she’s ready for this to be over.

“The first thing I’m going to do is, I’m going to go to my best friend’s house. We’re going to go to the mall,” said Renee. “We’re going to get some matching outfits.”

And, she said, she’ll finally get to see her younger siblings.

Laura Tsutsui was a reporter and producer for Valley Public Radio. She joined the station in 2017 as a news intern, and later worked as a production assistant and weekend host. Laura covered local issues ranging from politics to housing, and produced the weekly news program Valley Edition. She left the station in November 2020.