Social distancing hits hard for families in DCFS system

For more than a month, the state agency has banned in-person visits for thousands of parents with children in the child welfare system.

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Berwyn mother Leticia Seeman watches her 4-month-old daughter during one of several FaceTime calls that have replaced her court-ordered visitation since the state Department of Children & Family Services in March canceled in-person visitation for parents and siblings out of concerns over coronavirus.

Brian Ernst/Sun-Times

As millions of people have learned over a lonely springtime of social distancing, phone calls and video chats are no substitute for seeing loved ones in person.

In Illinois, the limitations of phone and online communications are particularly painful for many parents of children in the custody of the Department of Children & Family Services, which in late March canceled in-person, supervised visits for thousands of children and their parents over concern about the spread of COVID-19 and the health of DCFS workers, children and foster parents.

For Berwyn mother Leticia Seeman, that means video calls have been the only contact she has had since March with her 4-month-old daughter, who has been in the custody of Seeman’s parents since DCFS began an investigation in February.

“Sometimes I can get a smile out of her, but I don’t know if she really recognizes my voice,” Seeman said Friday, a day when Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s modified stay-at-home order took effect, loosening restrictions on activities for state residents.

“Today, I woke up, and people can go golfing, but I can’t see my baby. I can’t hold her. I can’t feed her. I have no interaction with her but the phone.”

Advocates for parents have complained to state officials about the blanket policy that has stalled visitation for parents for six weeks. Poor families, who comprise the vast majority of children in the state child welfare system, may lack access to cellphones — or pricey wireless data plans — needed to do video calls, said Tanya Gassenheimer, an attorney for the Shriver Center on Poverty Law.

“We’re talking about multiple months in which parents have no physical access to their children. That is its own public health concern, the mental health impact on children, the stress on parents, who do not know if their children have been exposed, if they’re healthy,” Gassenheimer said. “We are asking that the system take parenting and parents’ access to their children as seriously as the public health issues.”

Lawndale single mother Quincita Fleming once had weekly two-hour visitation with her three children. Since March 25, weekly 20- to 30-minute video calls are her only contact with her children, ages 9, 2 and four months.

“(The foster parents) have a babysitter, and we use her phone,” she said. “But I never know how long it’s going to be before she needs her phone back.

“I’m hurt, stressed, depressed. I have never missed a visit in more than a year (in the system). I don’t know what’s going on with my kids.”

Aaron Goldstein, who oversees the Cook County public defender’s office’s Child Protective Court division, said the office represents the parents of some 5,000 children in the DCFS system, and estimates more than half had been previously permitted in-person, supervised visits.

Local courts could make case-by-case orders mandating in-person visits and conditions to limit the risk of spreading COVID-19, but so far judges are hewing to DCFS guidelines, Goldstein said. The court even has put on hold hearings at which parents can regain custody of their children, Goldstein said.

“We have children in foster care who have a babysitter coming to the house every day, but the child’s parents still aren’t allowed to see them,” Goldstein said.

DCFS spokesman Jassen Strokosch said the agency and its partner were finding “creative ways” for supervised visits with the aid of technology, and that judges in some counties were making allowances to facilitate in-person visits.

“We understand people’s frustration, but we want to do what’s in the best interest of children,” he said. “That includes taking into consideration parents’ needs and in maintaining a relationship and also keeping everyone safe.”

Cook County Judge Patricia Martin, who presides over Child Protective courts, said judges still are hearing “emergency” cases. While she has sympathy for parents and children in her court, Martin is trying to adhere to guidelines from DCFS and the Centers for Disease Control by limiting in-person contact, including the number of court hearings she allows. The court, she said, is looking to broaden the list of issues eligible for emergency hearings as soon as this week.

“I feel sympathetic to any parent, anyone who has contact with a child that is restricted to FaceTime,” she said. “The issue for me is keeping that kid safe, and the parent safe, and the foster parent safe, and the (DCFS) worker safe. But during this national crisis, this world crisis, based on the fact the CDC is recommending us all not gather, I think it’s reasonable that this is the restriction.”

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