Roanoke social services adapt to concerns over foster, adopt process

Published: Apr. 15, 2020 at 10:41 PM EDT
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Adapting to a new work environment has been challenging for many people in the Roanoke Valley. But it's been especially hard for social workers, caring for children who have suffered abuse or neglect.

"I think we're learning as much from them, as we hope they're learning from us," said Tim Whitcomb and his wife Kay.

The Whitcombs worked for months to learn how to be foster parents. They were finally approved in October, and immediately fostered two children. Then just about a week and a half ago, came the third.

They say they're not letting the pandemic prevent them from opening their doors to a child in need.

"The children needed somewhere to go," he said. "So we were gonna provide that."

But that's not the case with all foster families, some of whom are now afraid to let a stranger in.

"These kinds of stresses are what leads to abuse," said Shannon Brahbam with Roanoke County Social Services.

Brahbam said Wednesday they worry abuse could go unnoticed behind closed doors, especially while school is canceled.

"Unfortunately, we may find out about abuse or neglect when it's too late," she said.

Her team is moving to virtual or socially distant meetings.

Social Services teams in Roanoke City say they're even wearing full Personal Protective gear for home visits.

But both departments expect it will be harder than usual to reunify a child with their own family or find them new temporary and permanent homes.

"So all those thing that we're asking families to do to get themselves in a stable position where they can have their children return home," Brahbam said, "that in many cases is just kind of put on hold."

According to the county's family services supervisor, Janet Belton, new placements and moves are still happening. The government is offering additional maintenance payments if appropriate, particularly if a child is high risk for catching the virus.

Children "aging out" of the system, she told WDBJ7 in an email, is being handled as it always was. They say they are working with the young adults to get them into a program called Fostering Futures and to enroll in school online or find a job.

For the kids affected by layoffs, Belton reported that her department helped them apply for unemployment or any other resources they may be eligible for but are working with them to keep them in the program.

Brahbam also notes that they have suspended travel for foster children, except in cases of placement change or for medical reasons.

Susan Reese, family services manager in Roanoke City, told WDBJ7 Wednesday that they are also beginning to experience trouble placing children in group homes of specific facilities, some of which have told her department they are not accepting any new applications.

When asked if her department had received much guidance from the state and federal agencies, she said that her department began adapting new measures and guidelines before any updated advisement from those other agencies. She said she hopes that moving forward, both the state and the federal government will be quicker to act in providing guidance for departments like hers.

Despite this, there is hope.

"We said, let's make a difference in our community and there are kids here in southwest Virginia that need homes," said local businesses man Brian Powell.

Powell and his husband are committed to becoming foster certified, adapting now to online training. Their cohort, which began in late January, has dwindled to half its original size. But Powell said they are determined to continue.

"You know you have to have that conversation, is it still the right time? And for us the answer was yes," he said.

Brahbam said despite setbacks and little guidance from the state and federal agencies, they're adapting as best as they can for children in need.

"I think that even more so than ever, our staff is committed to doing this."

Brahbam said that if the community would like to help support children in the area, they can take part in education and training to become foster certified. They can also help their own neighbors, by helping out parents and guardians who are heavily burdened during this crisis.

Brahbam suggests offering to watch a neighbor's children in the yard, buying them a grocery gift card and offering them the chance to talk if they seem stressed.

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