How do school closures affect students in foster care?

March 30, 2020

By Samantha Garrett, Education Specialist, CDHS Division of Child Welfare

As schools across Colorado - and the nation - close temporarily in order to slow the spread of COVID-19, children and youth who have experienced abuse and neglect and their families may have a particularly difficult time adjusting. Here’s how. 

Children and youth who are unsafe at home are less safe when schools are closed

While we know that these school closures are essential to keep our community safe as a whole, any child or youth who is unsafe at home is now spending all of their time in that home.  Students who are potentially experiencing abuse or neglect are now in their homes for an extended time with parents who are under additional stress related to this crisis, including possible stress related to work or loss of income or inability to access child care.  Furthermore, these young people do not have daily access to safe adults or mandatory reporters at school, as they do when schools are open. Since the start of March, Colorado has seen a decrease of more than 50% in calls to the Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline system.

While kids are at home, we need everyone to be aware of the signs of child abuse and neglect and call 1-844-CO-4-Kids to report their concerns. If there is an immediate threat, dial 911.

School closures are difficult for students who are behind academically

Students are likely to be academically behind at the time that they become involved with child welfare. Students placed out of the home are also likely to change schools regularly, and we know that school changes put students even further behind.  When schools close and students have to shift to learning at home, a student who has been lost in the classroom may have a difficult time catching up academically. Furthermore, students in foster care placements may or may not feel comfortable asking their caregivers for help with school work, especially if they have recently moved.  

Educators, please consider how best to academically support students during school closures, keeping in mind that students in foster care may have extra academic needs, and caregivers may or may not know what those needs are or how best to advocate for them.

School closures can be socially isolating for students in foster care

We are all likely feeling a bit isolated due to this crisis, but please remember that students placed out of the home are more socially isolated to begin with.  Because of frequent school changes, students in foster care may still be getting to know students at their schools and working to make new friends. Also, because of their unusual circumstances at home, students in foster care may be less likely to invite peers over to their homes, which can make it even more difficult to make new friends. 

Sometimes, difficult behaviors based on past trauma or other negative past experiences cause these children and youth to be unwelcome in peers' homes.  In other circumstances, young people who have changed placements no longer have access to social interactions with friends from previous schools or even with their own siblings.  Without daily peer interactions at school, children and youth may be more socially isolated than others while schools are closed. If at all possible, try to find creative ways to support students in out-of-home placement socially. Reach out and encourage responsible connection with positive peers and siblings. 

School closures can compound previous trauma and loss

Children and youth in foster care have already lost a daily connection with their parents, with the place that they think of as home, and sometimes with their siblings. With schools closed, those students are losing daily access to teachers and other positive adults at school, as well as a place that has been consistent day by day. Without daily school attendance, some students may be losing the most stable connection they have in their lives.  

This loss could cause young people to re-experience the trauma of moving away from their homes and their families, or it could cause them to feel abandoned again when they have felt abandoned in the past. Be aware of this important mental health experience for children and youth in foster care. 

Professionals, you can refer for additional supports if necessary, and make sure providers have students' histories of loss in mind.

Foster parents, you may see a change in behavior at home. This sense of abandonment can affect the relationship with/attachment to the caregiver as well.

School closures may make foster care placements less stable

If you are at home with your own children right now, you are likely aware that extended periods of time alone at home with your children can be stressful for parents. The time our children spend at school, with child care providers, at activities and sports, and on playdates help ease the burden for parents. When parents are "on" 24 hours a day for days on end, it can be tiresome and frustrating. Parenting under these circumstances is even more stressful for foster parents, who are raising children and youth in foster care and possibly their biological kids, who may not know each other particularly well. Children and youth in foster care may also have difficulty managing behaviors stemming from a previous trauma that could affect their relationships at home.

Foster parents, please reach out to your county, child placement agency and personal support network. The Colorado State Foster Parent Association, CarePortal and FosterSource are additional resources that can offer help. The Child Welfare Training System is also offering free, online training to child welfare professionals and families. 

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Colorado Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline
Available 24 hours a day, every day. Don't hesitate to call and get help. 
Anyone witnessing a child in a life-threatening situation should call 911 immediately.