This paper aims to describe how a sense of normalcy for young people in foster care can be critical to their well-being.
This paper reports on policy and practice efforts in the USA to promote normalcy for youth in care. The authors review policy that promotes normalcy and report on one organization's efforts to support these goals.
COVID-19 has offered profound challenges to the goal of normalcy. Rise Above has adapted to meet the challenges.
The authors argue that COVID may also offer opportunities to build toward a more robust paradigm of normalcy within child welfare policy and practice.
Collins, M.E. and Baldiga, S. (2020), "Normalcy for children in foster care in the time of coronavirus", Journal of Children's Services, Vol. 15 No. 4, pp. 215-219. https://doi.org/10.1108/JCS-06-2020-0023Download as .RIS
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Creating a sense of normalcy for young people in foster care can be critical to their well-being. Extensive research as well as practice wisdom have identified that families and home-like settings are the best living situations for children in comparison to residential care (Li, Chng, Chu, 2017). Experiencing out-of-home care is not normal and can be disruptive to positive development and overall well-being (Maclean, Sims, O'Donnell, and Gilbert, 2016). These potential negative effects are in addition to challenges young people face due to the circumstances that brought them into care. The coronavirus has exacerbated challenges to promoting normalcy for youth in care. But the disruptions caused by the virus may also provide opportunities for rethinking the child welfare system response so that normalcy becomes more deeply embedded in child welfare policy and practice.
Impacts of COVID-19
COVID-19 has impacted normalcy in all lives, not just those of youth in foster care. But youth in care have heightened vulnerabilities and thus the impact of COVID-19 disruptions may be far more acute and long lasting. The many ways in which lives have been disrupted for youth in care include suspension of in-person family visits, broader use of technology for communications with social workers and families, closure of schools and consequent efforts to provide education through other mechanisms, confinement within the living setting (foster home or congregate care) due to stay-at-home mandates, and the inability to engage in the wide variety of activities in the community that make for a healthy life (Collins and Augsberger, 2020; Wong et al., 2020). Potential negative effects may include heightened anxiety related to change of routine and pandemic-related fears, affective disorders due to loss of social connections, slowing of educational development and potential exposure to maltreatment due to stressful living situations (Wilke et al., 2020).
In the USA, normalcy is a term used in the child welfare system that supports youths’ engagement in developmentally appropriate activities that promote healthy development of youth in foster care (Pokempner et al., 2015). Youths who live in unrelated foster homes or group care settings have long endured barriers to normalcy; for example, caregivers were not allowed to give permission for activities, background checks were required when staying over at a friend’s house, and court orders were sometimes needed to participate in athletic teams, get a driver's license, or attend religious or school trips (Pokempner et al., 2015; Simmons-Horton, 2017).
Foster youth have reported feelings of stigma because of these circumstances (Rogers, 2017). Youths’ inability to engage in normal adolescent activities only contributes to these feelings. This highlights the importance of youth engagement in normal social and recreational activities. The exposure to the wide variety of normal activities for young people is thought to have numerous developmental benefits that reduce the stigma of foster care involvement, and potentially leads to both connections and development. In turn, this may also be related to the eventual better outcomes related to employment, mental health and overall well-being. For example, sports activities may facilitate the treatment of trauma (Massey and Williams, 2019) either because physical movement may help regulate the autonomic nervous system and/or because engagement in sports can lead to positive relationships with adults and peers, competence through skill building and development of interpersonal skills through cooperative play. Engagement in the arts (drama, writing, painting) has also been recognized for potential in helping young people overcome trauma (Nsonwu et al., 2015).
Below, we describe current explicit policy related to normalcy and an effort in one state of the USA to bring a sense of normalcy to children in foster care. We describe how these efforts were adapted to respond to COVID-19. In conclusion, we draw lessons as to how policymakers, programs and the public can further efforts toward normalcy after the pandemic subsides.
Promoting normalcy for children in foster care is a focus of federal legislation (The Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act, P.L. 113–183). Title I of the Act requires state child welfare agencies to promote “normalcy” for youth in foster care by allowing them to more easily participate in age appropriate social, scholastic and enrichment activities. The law requires states to support the healthy development of youth in care through implementing a “reasonable and prudent parent standard” for decisions made by a foster parent or a designated official for a childcare institution. Through this standard, the act intends to promote normalcy – the ability to engage in healthy and developmentally appropriate activities that promote well-being – for all youth in care (Center for the Study of Social Policy (CSSP), 2015). The Act also includes modest funding to states each year, starting in 2020. The purpose of funds is for states to have resources to support youth engagement in activities. Many states have subsequently drafted state versions to mirror these normalcy laws.
One organization’s efforts to support normalcy
Rise Above Foundation is a Massachusetts nonprofit that was established is 2009 to provide youth in foster care in that state with funding to access extracurricular activities and experiences. As social workers for the state’s public child welfare agency, two of Rise Above's founders observed that the youth they worked with very often missed out on sports, music and summer camps simply due to lack of available funds.
Rise Above fulfills individual requests for a range of activities that include athletic fees and equipment, music, arts and theater classes, school field trips and study abroad programs, prom attire, and summer camps. Requests are made by social workers, foster parents, clinicians or youth themselves and the organization makes payment to the vendor or league or provides a gift card. Since the organization began, more than 6,000 activity requests have been fulfilled for youth including 1,200 in the past year alone.
The organization conducts limited evaluation to determine the impact of their efforts, primarily by documenting the number and type of requests as well as their effort to meet the requests. Table 1 provides some of this information for the past five years. During this time period, 14% of young people served were ages 0–5, 34% were 6–11, 38% were 12–17, 15% were 18+. More females (54%) than males (45%) were served as well as a small number of transgender young people (n = 19, <1%).
In each case, the requester (caseworker or foster parent) receives an email for an approved request that provides a link to an online survey. The organization also requests “thoughts, thank yous, or drawings […] expressing how important this funding award will be” to be used in evaluation and fundraising. A second request is sent out quarterly to all applicants and social workers who had a request approved within that past quarter. This communication notes that:
In order for us to report back to our donors, feedback from the kids we help is essential and will enable us to help more youth in the future. If you’ve already had the youth Rise Above helped send us a thank you note, thank you! If not, please ask them to take a moment to share with us why participating in this activity was important to him or her or why they loved it.
More robust evaluation efforts (e.g. how the activity influences young person’s case plan) are beyond the scope of the organization’s resources. From mid-March to mid/late June (the first three months of the pandemic), the response rate to the survey was 21%.
During the coronavirus pandemic, when most of the types of activities the organization funds were on hold or canceled, Rise Above stepped in to provide youth with bikes, scooters, arts and crafts supplies, laptops and tablets. Many of the items provided have had multiple benefits, as a foster parent explained, “[The laptop] is enabling him to complete activities for school, stay connected to his friends, ‘meet’ with his therapist and therapeutic mentor, and have virtual visits with his bio mom. It is also providing some down time for us!”
In the first three months of the pandemic, Rise Above supported the needs of 700 Massachusetts youth in foster care and expects the high demand for its programming to continue as social distancing remains in place and many youth cannot access their support services. For example, the organization has supported several youth with outdoor play structures, water tables and mini trampolines. One social worker explained the value of the trampoline for a child:
It helps him burn off all his energy from being cooped up from school closings, and he has a blast doing it! In addition, because he has gross motor delays and is missing PT [physical therapy] from schools being closed, it’s also doubling as an excellent PT activity!"
In one other example, a foster parent identified the importance of music therapy: “What Rise Above has provided this child has been enormously helpful. When things started to shut down with COVID-19 we were very worried about him and how the family would be able to safely maintain him in the [foster] home without community supports (he had been struggling for a while) Although the [virtual] music therapy calms him, it was too expensive for the family to pay out of pocket. We can't thank you enough for the support as we tried to think out of the box to provide this little guy with healthy outlets to keep him safe and stable”.
In addition to efforts to support individual youth in foster care, Rise Above Foundation also serves to raise the profile of youth in care and the importance of bringing normalcy to youths’ lives and to the foster care system. Through fundraising, events and partnerships the organization educates the community on all these issues.
We offer three reflections on normalcy, the impact of COVID-19 on out-of-home care, and steps to move forward. The coronavirus has caused extensive disruption in numerous areas of life with potentially long-lasting effects that we cannot yet fully ascertain. The whole of the child welfare system has been gravely affected leading to numerous adaptations, some enhanced flexibility and an overall sense of uncertainty for children, families and workers.
First, child welfare systems have multiple goals. In the USA., these are explicitly identified as safety, permanency and well-being (Wilson, 2014). Safety has always been paramount and has long emphasized a child protection orientation that has reduced capacity for more family-focused supportive intervention. Although permanency has gained important traction due to several policy and program developments, well-being continues to be the third goal that has not received enough attention (Wesley et al., 2020). Efforts to achieve normalcy is one component of well-being. Thus, as COVID-19 has caused significant disruption to our systems it provides an opportunity to re-think our fundamental approach. As a result, continuing to highlight the importance of normalcy may help to institutionalize such approaches as a “new normal” unfolds.
Second, the efforts reported in this article are the result of a private non-profit agency in one state. Although normalcy is now identified within federal and state legislation, the implementation of normalcy provisions has remained scant in public child welfare systems. Tragedies in care consistently result in reactive policymaking that reinforces protective services to the neglect of family support and other services that would promote normalcy (Collins, 2018). While the efforts of private sector organizations such as Rise Above Foundation aim to fill this gap, the goal should be for normalcy to be embedded within public sector practice. Institutionalizing a normalcy approach across the public sector, in all areas of the country, would eliminate the need for private organizations to serve this role and would promote a more universal approach to promoting normalcy and enhancing child and family well-being.
Third, while normalcy as described in legislation and as practiced by Rise Above Foundation has emphasized the ability of youth to engage in activities, aims for normalcy should have much broader ambitions – safety in the home; connections to family, friends, and culture; full inclusiveness in school and other settings; and de-stigmatization of care experiences, for example. More robust promotion of normalcy may be transformative of childcare systems. COVID-19 has caused disruption to daily lives that has been both broad and deep. In the aftermath of this disruption it may help us rebuild systems with overall normalcy as a more prominent goal. While we have focused on the developmental experiences needed by youth, other aspects include: reducing placement moves, prioritizing the most home-like environment, engaging mentors and other community members to facilitate social support, utilizing positive youth development approaches, and offering young people opportunities for civic engagement.
While the concept of normalcy raises some questions about defining what is normal, it can help policymakers, program managers and practitioners reflect on the multiple ways in which the experience of foster care might be better aligned with the experiences of young people not in foster care. Using normative experiences as a yardstick by which we measure our societal response to youth in care must become the dominant paradigm to guide policy and practice. This is how we should guide reforms to the system, those forced by COVID-19 and by other factors.
Type of funded activities
|Activity||FY16 (%)||FY17 (%)||FY18 (%)||FY19 (%)||FY20 (%)||Total (%)|
|Physical activities||123 25||215 33||226 31||217 28||340 31||1358 29|
|Entertainment||77 16||157 24||176 24||267 34||174 16||994 21|
|Camp||134 27||93 14||127 18||96 12||36 3||731 16|
|Education-related||77 16||98 15||99 14||118 15||404 37||975 21|
|Beauty/salon visit||25 7||35 5||29 4||7 1||8 1||189 4|
|Music/Arts||25 5||28 4||26 4||40 5||54 5||245 5|
|Prom||16 3||18 3||19 3||6 1||0 0||83 2|
|Other||4 1||8 1||11 2||9 1||23 2||63 1|
|Apartment set-up||1 < 1||2 < 1||8 1||20 3||49 5||80 2|
Center for the Study of Social Policy (CSSP) (2015), Promoting Well-Being through the Reasonable and Prudent Parent Standard: A Guide for States Implementing the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act (H.R. 4980), CSSP, Washington, DC.
Collins, M.E. (2018), “Comparative analysis of state policy-making in child welfare: utilizing theory to explain policy choices”, Journal of Comparative Policy Analysis: Research and Practice, Vol. 20, pp. 370-386.
Collins, M.E. and Augsberger, A. (2020), “Child welfare outreach work in a time of coronavirus: discretion and constraints”, Journal of Comparative Policy Analysis: Research on Practice.
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Rogers, J. (2017), “‘Different’ and ‘devalued’: managing the stigma of foster care with the benefit of peer support”, The British Journal of Social Work, Vol. 47 No. 4, pp. 1078-1093.
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Wong, C.A., Ming, D., Maslow, G. and Gifford, E.J. (2020), “Mitigating the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic response on at-risk children”, Pediatrics, Vol. 146 No. 1, p. e20200973, doi: 10.1542/peds.2020-0973 (2020).
About the authors
Mary Elizabeth Collins is based at the School of Social Work, Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts, USA.
Sarah Baldiga is based at the Rise Above Foundation, Northbridge, Massachusetts, USA.