Zeroed Out: Child Welfare, Juvenile Justice and the Stimulus Bill

Capitol Hill

According to the CDC, “social isolation” is the leading cause of child maltreatment. Yet social distancing is necessary to ensure the public’s health and safety during this pandemic. It can, however, put youth at a heightened risk of child abuse and neglect. Detention centers, group homes, and other institutional facilities are especially dangerous due to the highly contagious nature of the virus. To alleviate public health concerns, these facilities are suspending in-person visits, which further isolates youth from their support systems. How has Congress responded to assist stressed systems so they may properly care for the health and safety of older youth in foster care and in justice systems during this crisis? Zero.

The news is filled with information of the congressional passage of the massive $2 trillion stimulus package to respond to emergency needs caused by the COVID-19 health and economic crisis. In earlier versions of the bill, $100 million was allocated for the juvenile justice system to assist local jurisdictions to provide basic rights and safety to youth. Five hundred million was apportioned to services for older youth in and recently transitioned out of foster care to ensure their health and safety during this public health crisis. All of this money was zeroed out in the ultimate bill that passed Congress and was signed into law. Although some child welfare funding was included in the bill, none targeted older youth, who are at heightened risk during this crisis. Zero for juvenile justice.

Youth currently in congregate care settings and those who will exit care during this pandemic need enhanced services and supports. The COVID-19 virus is extremely contagious, which has led the United States to mandate social distancing at unprecedented levels. At the same time, young people in our custody are left in overcrowded conditions in group homes, detention centers, and placement facilities. Their educational needs and social interaction are limited in response to concerns about their health and safety. In-person visits by family and by case workers are suspended but alternatives are not adequately in place to provide remote access. Youth who will be transitioning out of foster care or discharged from the justice system are at risk of homelessness without adequate supports in place. This places them in grave danger due to the rise in positive cases of COVID-19 each day. Moreover, the majority of youth in both systems have a history of trauma and yet during such a traumatic time, they are isolated.

Congressional leaders are now talking about a new bill that will address human services needs. We are weeks into this crisis and children in our care are suffering. We must respond now and ensure that:

-All youth in the justice system who can safely return to family and community must be released;

-Youth in placement have access to telephones, computers and internet to maintain remote contact with families, caseworkers, attorneys and other supports, especially if in-person visits are suspended;

-No youth can be discharged from foster care without reunification, adoption or guardianship in place, even if they have reached age 21; and

-No youth can be discharged from foster care to an unstable placement or homelessness during this national emergency.

At Juvenile Law Center, we fight for rights, dignity, equity and opportunity for youth in the child welfare and justice systems, with a particular focus on older youth. Despite the need for national social distancing, no child in our care should be isolated. At a time of unprecedented emergency responses, no needs should be zeroed out.

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