With the COVID-19 continuing to rear its ugly head as the end of 2020 nears, children in the child welfare system remain one of the most impacted groups of this pandemic, especially this holiday season.
Both staff and volunteers at CASA of Los Angeles, a nonprofit who works one-on-one with many of the 34,000 children across L.A. County who have suffered the most serious cases of abuse or neglect, say the pandemic has exacerbated some of the challenges these kids already face in their day-to-day, No. 1 being access to appropriate and successful education.
“Lots of people have school-aged kids at home and I think can relate to how difficult distance learning is,” Wende Julien, CEO of CASA, said. “Now, try to imagine what that’s like when you’re in a foster home with a caregiver who the child doesn’t have a long relationship with, or even worse, in a group home or some kind of institutional-type setting where you have 10 or 15 young people trying to all access wifi and sharing technology.”
It’s these children who were already behind or struggling as they bounce from school to school who are now having even more difficulty accessing a fair and adequate education.
“It’s something that hurts more for young people who need special education support and also for young people who need that social emotional support of being at school with peers, friends and teachers who care about them and that are consistent,” Julien added.
Joy Finch, a CASA volunteer in the Santa Clarita Valley, has seen this firsthand with the 14-year-old girl she’s been working with for over a year now.
“The first shut down, she was just finishing up her eighth-grade year and was on the brink in a few classes,” Finch said. “(Then), it was just kind of like ‘hold on’ as much as possible, but now she started at high school, … (and) a lot of it is (that) she just does not like the online, on-a-camera, always-on-the-computer aspect of it.”
Starting at a new school means meeting new teachers, which the teen hasn’t been able to do in-person this year, nor has she been able to see her friends, which have further distanced her from those much-needed relationships.
“She’s not doing a great job on attendance, and I think that’s because she just doesn’t feel the connection to classmates and teachers,” Finch added. “She’s really struggling with this. She’s very social. I know she’s really frustrated on the social side, and misses seeing her friends face-to-face.”
In addition, facilitating in-person visits with families and even Finch herself have been difficult, as they need to protect both the biological family and foster family through the pandemic.
Typically, Finch would see the teen at least once a month for a fun activity as they caught up on goings on and got to know one another better, but most communication has been by phone, which Finch said doesn’t seem to be the greatest connection with her.
“She’s much more open to talking in person,” Finch added. “I think all the kids are struggling with that, and then we just got this extra layer of not seeing her biological family as often and just dealing with her relationship with her foster mom that just adds an extra level of stress in an already stressful time.”
The pandemic has also resulted in most court hearings either being canceled or pushed forward, leaving the largest number of open cases in the child welfare system in 14 years, according to Julien.
“The silver lining, or the great news in comparison, is that CASA has seen an influx of volunteers, which is fantastic,” Julien added. “And I think it’s for two reasons: I think there are some people who have more time right now. … I believe the movement for racial equities that happened this summer also motivated a lot of people to get involved.”
Volunteers from the SCV in particular have been stepping up to help serve some of the corners of the county that are especially challenging, such as the Antelope Valley.
“The dedication of Santa Clarita Valley volunteers just thinking about their neighbors in the Antelope Valley has been remarkable and really something that I think shows a willingness to reach out and care for people that maybe aren’t your immediate neighbor, but needs your help a lot, and it’s been really exciting to watch the communities come together that way,” Julien said.
For Finch, who works as an attorney and has been a volunteer for about four years, though frustrating at times, being a volunteer is a chance for her to have a long-term investment in someone and make an impact.
“Luckily, she’s been with her current foster mom for a while now, but we’re on the third social worker since I’ve had her, changing schools, different family things, so I just kind of view myself as a steady force in her life,” Finch said.
“Everyone can become a CASA volunteer,” Julien added. “It’s a doable, achievable volunteer experience, it’s something that we’ll support you on and it will change your life.”
For more information on CASA of Los Angeles, visit casala.org or call 661-723-CASA (2272).