by Natalie Saenz, Elsie Stormberg and Grace Trexel
Since COVID-19 began to affect Nebraska in March, Kelsey Hans’ job as a caseworker for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services has been tumultuous.
Hans, who has worked with DHHS for two and a half years, began virtual visits with families for her cases on March 20. After virtual visits guidance ceased on July 15, Hans started meeting with families in person.
Hans wears her mask everywhere while on the job. Sometimes she waves to the children in foster homes through windows of the home. Sometimes when Hans enters a home, the family isn’t wearing masks.
Hans’ biggest fear? Potentially spreading the disease when checking in on her cases.
“It’s the fear of potentially spreading it and having to go into people’s homes,” Hans said. “That’s been a struggle.”
Along with these new layers of difficulties, Hans also said she’s grappled with finding placement in homes for children. Hans was on call recently when children were removed from their biological parent’s home. Hans said she was practically a foster parent for an evening.
“I had to sit with the kids all night long because we couldn’t find anyone who would take them… they were in an unknown place that wasn’t a home,” Hans said.
As for adoptions, with pandemic-related delays and backed-up paperwork adoptions have been postponed for many families, Hans said. This ultimately has influenced the number of official adoptions in Nebraska compared to past years.
In 2020, adoptions in Nebraska have decreased to about half in comparison to the previous year. According to data from the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), there have been 292 adoptions as of Nov. 1, 2020, in comparison to the 547 official adoptions in 2019.
COVD-19 has altered the processes within the fostering system. Kinship placements are more frequent. A kinship foster home is one where the child has a pre-existing relationship with their caregiver. Also, paperwork, especially for a foster care license has been backlogged.
Alger Studstill, DHHS deputy director of protection and safety, said COVID-19 has affected how DHHS operates.
On March 20, DHHS issued guidance to solely virtual visits with children and families, unless it is absolutely necessary for the child’s safety. As time went on DHHS made changes to its recommended guidelines by allowing more “face to face” contact with children and families.
DHHS resumed face to face interaction with the stipulation that staff must follow local Directive Health Measures (DHMs) and be aware of hot spots as of July 15.
“We’ve adapted to the COVID environment, if you will,” Studstill said. “People in the office are wearing masks and wearing masks when we go out in the field.”
According to DHHS guidelines, the adoption process for children within the foster care system requires certain preparations before the adoption is officiated. Since Nebraska’s foster care system focuses on reunifying children with their biological families, DHHS will first try to prepare the parents to maintain their child’s custody. However, if it is not possible, then the case manager or children and family services specialist will work with the parents on voluntarily relinquishing their parental rights.
Once the biological parents have terminated their parental rights, the child is placed in a foster home with relatives or friends while the process for adoption proceeds. Children must be in the placement foster home for at least six months before being adopted.
In the best interest of the children, having the stability of a home and caregivers is important Hans said, even during COVID-19.
“It’s hard to say that people should still foster while trying to take in consideration their own health and safety, but I mean, I feel like it’s such a high need [right now],” Hans said.
Families throughout the state struggled with the chaos of a pandemic. But for families waiting to be placed with a foster child or to make their family official, the experience can be just as chaotic as the pandemic.
Three Nebraskan families spoke on their experience with the foster care and adoption system during the pandemic. These are their stories.
Family becomes official despite COVID-19 delays
The Konecky’s welcomed two new members into their family on Nov. 20. Their journey to grow their family has been long the past three years, but with COVID-19, it has been even longer.
COVID-19 paused process for family to become foster parents
The Winkles’ were in the process of finalizing their certification to foster a child when the pandemic hit. Their process paused and the family didn’t hear anything from their agency for months.
Unexpected pandemic helps family find missing piece
In the middle of a pandemic, the Lyman’s suddenly had what they always wanted — a foster child. Despite not being certified, the Lyman family had an emergency placement which has resulted in an adoption in December.