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Foster Parenting in the Pandemic Is Full of Worry

Government is supporting foster families, but advocates say single, senior caregivers fret about illness and financial supports.

Katie Hyslop 8 Apr 2020TheTyee.ca

Katie Hyslop is a reporter for The Tyee. Reach her here.

B.C. foster parents give the Ministry of Children and Family Development good marks for its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the illness has added complexity and risks to the challenge of providing homes for children in the government’s care.

“They’ve been tremendously responsive whenever we have questions,” said Jayne Wilson, executive director of the BC Federation of Foster Parent Associations.

Wilson said she has been hearing from foster parents with “questions, concerns, worries.”

“I forward those over to our ministry team,” she said. “If they need to contact me directly, they do. Otherwise they might contact the family with the question directly, which is great.”

But COVID-19 is raising foster parents’ concerns about finances and what will happen if they or the children in their care get the virus.

If illness means children are moved from the home, for example, parents aren’t sure if government funding would be halted or whether they would be eligible for other government COVID-19 unemployment programs.

Many of the 2,022 foster care households taking care of almost 4,000 children and youth are headed by seniors, Wilson says.

The ministry doesn’t track foster parent gender, but told The Tyee the average age of caregivers is 53.5. The vast majority of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Canada are over 40, and globally half of the fatalities have been people over 70.

Facing financial worries

Providing foster care isn’t intended to be a job, the ministry maintains. The federation’s Wilson also said the monthly payment foster parents receive “isn’t intended to be a wage.” If children were removed from a home because of COVID-19, the foster parents’ expenses would drop, she noted.

But in reality many foster parents — particularly those providing higher levels of care — are unable to work outside the home and depend on the payments.

There are four levels of foster caregivers, based on their ability to care for children and youth with higher developmental, behavioural, mental and physical needs. Monthly foster payments range from $983 to $2,906 per child based on the level of care required. Half of B.C. foster care providers are designated Level 2 or Level 3, meaning they care for children with higher needs. As independent contractors, foster parents don’t qualify for employment insurance.

Wilson said it’s difficult for single people providing care for higher needs children to work as well as foster. The payments are intended to ensure they don’t have to work outside the home while taking care of kids who may require 24-7 supervision, she said.

“If they have a partner, the partner can be working. But if it’s a single senior citizen who is caring for extreme needs children, there is no other way to support themselves at this point,” Wilson said. “So they can’t necessarily go out and get a job.”

That’s the case for Marcy Perron, a 72-year-old Kelowna resident who has been a foster caregiver for almost 25 years. Perron, a Level 3 caregiver, has three foster children, ages two, nine and 12. The two oldest children are designated as high needs and have been homeschooled since schools closed last month.

“The kids being able to enjoy any time has been restricted, because anything we would normally do is closed,” said Perron. The children also miss visits from their birth families, she said, barred to prevent the transmission of COVID-19.

“Tempers flare, they get on each other’s nerves. It’s difficult.”

Perron wouldn’t be able to care for her foster kids without the roughly $6,000 monthly financial support from the Ministry of Children and Family Development. It helps pay for the youths’ various therapies and programs, as well as a three-bedroom apartment and a newer model vehicle, both of which Perron says are required for fostering three kids.

“I’ve got a 2018 [vehicle] that I’ve had for not even two years and I’ve got almost 49,000 kilometres on it. You do a lot of driving with the kids,” she said.

Funding uncertainty a longstanding issue

The issue of funding uncertainty isn’t new, but it’s heightened by the pandemic, says Julie Holmlund, who is on the BC Federation of Foster Parent Associations board and president of the Kelowna Foster Parents Association.

“For the single-parent foster homes, there’s that issue all the time: if kids return home or if kids age out, or if kids get moved for some reason — if the placement breaks down or whatever, you stop getting maintenance funding when the child leaves,” Holmlund said. Foster parents get two months’ notice of the funding cut.

Perron notes that her monthly expenses reflect the cost of providing a suitable home and transportation for the foster children. Many expenses would drop if her foster children were placed elsewhere during the pandemic due to a COVID-19 diagnosis or returned to their birth families.

But without the funding, she wouldn’t be able to live on her $1,500-a-month pension in Kelowna, where the average one-bedroom apartment rents for over $1,200.

The ministry told The Tyee via email it isn’t sure whether foster caregivers would qualify for provincial or federal financial support programs like the Canada Emergency Response Benefit if children were placed elsewhere during the pandemic. It encouraged caregivers to check out the province’s COVID-19 response website.

What if the foster parents are infected?

Children and Family Development Minister Katrine Conroy told The Tyee late last month that the ministry was working with BC Foster Parents and other organizations to establish respite relief for foster parents who contract COVID-19 during the pandemic.

“It would certainly be a first step,” said BC Foster Parents’ Wilson. “I think it’s absolutely necessary that there be a plan in place for how to make sure the kids are cared for and the foster parent can take care of their own health, without risk of exposure. I know they’re working on those plans right now, we’re just waiting to hear the next steps.”

In Perron’s case, she has already established a safety plan should she contract COVID-19. Her adult daughter, a former foster parent who owns the three-bedroom basement suite Perron rents and lives upstairs, would take the kids while Perron quarantined herself for two weeks.

Foster parent Claudette Roy, 71, told The Tyee her ministry resource worker called last week to ask Roy to create a plan in case anyone in her household contracts COVID-19. She and her partner foster two children, ages 13 and 17. They have enough bedrooms and bathrooms to allow quarantine of a household member.

“I’ve found my resource worker to be extremely informative,” said Roy, who lives in the Lower Mainland and has been a foster caregiver for 21 years.

“I don’t feel like I’m out of the loop, I feel like I get information in a timely manner. Very directive, which is nice because it’s nice and clear, ‘this is what you have to do.’ You don’t have to guess about it.”

In an emailed statement, a ministry spokesperson said pandemic planning with foster families was based on a system already in place to manage foster care placements during other crises, like wildfires and the opioid epidemic.

“The ministry has already developed and communicated ways for our caregivers and children and youth to contact us in an emergency, including a pandemic,” the statement read.

“There is ongoing monitoring throughout the province and we will continue to work closely with our partners in the health-care system to stay current as the situation develops.”  [Tyee]

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