Children, Crowded Institutions and the COVID-19 Pandemic

“My greatest fear was that they would forget I was in there.”

I keep replaying these words as I consider the urgent needs of youth in the justice and child welfare systems during this COVID-19 pandemic. These are the words of a colleague reflecting on his time in solitary confinement as a teenager. During the current national emergency, as we face health and economic challenges to every sector of society, it is critical that we do not forget children in the justice and child welfare systems. It is the responsibility of all of us to elevate the health and safety of children in our care.

Mission number one must be to bring home as many children as possible from juvenile justice detention centers and institutional placements for the health of the children, staff, and our wider public health. Youth who can be safely cared for in their homes and communities should not be in institutions during a pandemic. Getting children out of institutions and back to their homes and communities could be a matter of life or death.

If children must remain in placement at this time of national crisis, we all remain responsible for their physical and mental health. Overcrowding is unacceptable. Adequate sanitation supplies must be available. Children with symptoms must be cared for in segregated health care settings. Visitation must remain in place and if in-person family visits are not possible due to public health concerns, remote alternatives must be meaningful and fully supported. Visits during a period of stress such as this are not a privilege to be earned but a right to be protected. If schools are not in session, appropriate educational opportunities and other safe activities must be provided so teens are not idle all day, creating another set of problems for mental health and safety.

As Congress debates economic packages to stabilize our economy, we have to remove economic stress on families caused by administrative costs and fees from the juvenile justice system. We are leading the national effort to place a moratorium on the collection of juvenile justice fines and fees during this economic crisis.

In the child welfare system, older youth must have the supports they need to stay safe and healthy. For youth who must remain in foster care, if visits are suspended, meaningful alternatives to in-person family visits must be instituted so children are not further traumatized or isolated. We must address the unique needs of youth from foster care who are forced to leave their college dorms. For older youth transitioning from care, children should not be discharged to homelessness at any time and certainly not during a national health emergency. This means that attendance at school or work must be removed from eligibility requirements for extended foster care up to age 21 when schools are closed and jobs are disappearing.

These are extraordinary times that are challenging the already stressed child welfare and juvenile justice systems. At Juvenile Law Center, we have joined with partners at the local, state and national levels to push out recommendations for Congressional action; we have written to Pennsylvania Governor Wolf with a set of necessary actions to protect our most vulnerable populations in Pennsylvania; and published factsheets for older youth in care and those forced to leave their colleges. Contact me with any questions about these imperatives and our work, smangold@jlc.org.

Stay safe. Stay healthy. Remember the children in our public care.

CEO, Juvenile Law Center