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Fostering hope during COVID

“COVID–19 has disrupted schedules and routines that foster children depend on to make them feel safe,” said Angie Gillen, outreach coordinator for The Salvation Army Children’s Services: Adoption and Foster Care Program at the Allentown, Pa., Corps.

“The children who go into foster homes come from trauma,” Gillen said. “They come from completely disrupted lives. But when we bring them into a foster home, we’re bringing them into a place that’s stable and consistent.

“They get a routine and they know what to expect and that allows them to relax and feel safe. Feeling safe is the most important thing for them.”

However, the quarantine and cancellations have turned the children’s lives upside down, Gillen said. They can’t go to daycare, school, after–school activities or see their friends. They can’t even go to the park.

“Disrupting everything they’ve come to expect is another trauma for them, so we’re retraumatizing them,” Gillen said. “We’re taking away that feeling of safety.”

Gillen said that when children feel unsafe or unsettled again, a lot of the behaviors they exhibited before can resurface.

“It’s complex,” Gillen said. “It’s our job to support families through this because we want them to be successful. We want the children to heal.


The challenges parents face

Gillen said COVID is also taking a toll on the foster parents, many of whom were forced to work from home alongside their foster children, who couldn’t attend school.

“Our foster parents are dealing with a lot of the same stresses everyone else is and they’re trying to protect these children, who are experiencing things twice as hard as the rest of us,” she said.

The children were also prevented from visiting their birth parents due to social distancing and quarantining, Gillen said.

“Thank God for Zoom,” she said. “I don’t know if the people at Zoom know what they’ve done in allowing these children to continue visits with their birth parents. But it has its limitations.

“Trying to get a small child to pay attention to a Zoom meeting for an hour is challenging. Those visits aren’t as meaningful as they should be.”

The children also meet with caseworkers via Zoom. Gillen said they usually like to be informal, friendly, and casual. Zoom makes that difficult, especially for younger children who have trouble focusing.

“It’s hard on the families,” she said. “Our agency is big on positive connections and the COVID crisis is putting a damper on that. Doing things remotely via Zoom isn’t the same as being there in person.”


Zoom adoptions, placements

In the early days of COVID, the day-to-day business of adoptions and foster care placements were put on hold in many counties. Some are now taking place via Zoom.

“Only things that are essential are happening,” Gillen said.

For children who are waiting for finalization of their cases and perhaps placement with a permanent family, the uncertainty can make them feel unsafe.

While COVID has been challenging, Gillen has seen some heartwarming examples of kindness.

A family with five foster children needed computers to do their homework. Gillen was able to acquire two laptops through One Simple Wish, an organization that grants wishes to children.

One foster–parenting couple accepted five siblings without even asking if they were COVID-positive or had been exposed.

“It’s incredible for me to see people doing that,” Gillen said. “It’s inspiring, and it puts this crisis into perspective.

When the quarantine began, Gillen and her staff helped by providing “connection boxes” and “yes bags.”

They filled the boxes with fun and simple activities for families, which included craft supplies, fidgets, small toys, and books. The yes bags were filled with small trinkets and toys.

A note sent home to parents read, “So many of our kids are accustomed to hearing ‘no’ when it comes to getting their needs met, which leads to a sense of unfelt safety and the need for survival. This is a great way to allow them to know that ‘yes,’ someone will meet their needs and keep them safe.”


The Army’s history of caring

Gillen said The Salvation Army has offered foster care and adoption services in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley for 30 years. In 2018, more than 17,000 kids went through foster care in Pennsylvania. Today, nearly 3,000 children are waiting to be adopted.

“We do everything, including raising awareness about the need for and training people to become foster and adoptive families,” Gillen said. We support them in their placement, we work with birth families when they visit their children, we do adoption formalizations, and we do post–adoption support.

“It’s a horror sometimes what has happened to children,” Gillen said. “Sometimes it’s just a parent who is struggling to take care of their child. You see all ranges.

“We’re trying to pick up the pieces and put them back together. They’re not going to be exactly the same, but hopefully they’re going to be beautiful.”

Gillen said the foster and birth families work together and sometimes bond and share holidays.

“One of the more inspiring things we see are the reunited families and foster families come together to create a new extended family,” she said. “It’s an ideal situation. To see that happen is like magic.”

Gillen, who has worked in child welfare for 13 years, including the last three with The Salvation Army, wanted to be a lawyer and work in child welfare, but eventually settled on social work.

“Someday, all of the children are going to be adults,” she said. “We want them to be confident and competent and know that they’ve been loved.

“We can’t take away what happened to them, but we can give them the tools to create an amazing future for themselves and that’s what makes me want to do this.”

Gillen said her spiritual life plays an important role.

“I want to live the kind of life that Jesus taught people to have,” she said. “I’ve done other jobs. I’ve worked in the for-profit world, where the goal is to make as much money as I could for the company. But I felt empty. When I do work that’s in line with what I think God would feel I was put on Earth to do, I feel like I have a purpose.”

by Robert Mitchell

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