FEATURED STORY

Fostering in the COVID Era

The pandemic adds a new challenge to fostering

BY TY DEMARTINO ’90


As the need for foster parents in Western Maryland and across the state continues to rise, recruitment efforts have been particularly challenging over the past year during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Foster families who had children placed during COVID have a whole new set of circumstances," said Courtney Thomas-Winterberg ’99, director of Allegany County Department of Social Services. "There's still a tremendous need for foster parents both locally and statewide."

A big challenge includes foster/resource parents not receiving a break in the era of remote working, virtual learning and quarantining. While all parents can relate, that constancy has been more stressful for those fostering. "These children have special behavioral needs," said Thomas-Winterberg. "It's not always an easy road."

Thomass-Winterberg

Mary Beth DeMartino ’92, director of Pressley Ridge of Western Maryland, a therapeutic foster care agency in Cumberland, agreed with Thomas-Winterberg and added that the need for strong foster parents is even greater now with the increase of substance abuse during the pandemic.

"Across the state there has been a rise in fatal overdoses. Sadly, many of those individuals were parents," DeMartino said. "We continue to see an increase in referrals for children, teens and sibling groups who need foster care placements."

Thomas-Winterberg and DeMartino admitted that the main goal for foster children is to keep them in their families rather than offer out-of-home care. But when that's not an option, a foster care placement is the best and safest alternative for any child.

"It's only natural for a child to want to stay with his or her family. We strive to maintain those family connections. That includes keeping siblings together in a foster setting," DeMartino said. "Making sure children can visit and keep family connections is critical. We aim to reunify them whenever possible."

Over the last year, social workers across the nation had to be creative and think of new ways to safely offer services to their clients. Virtual and telehealth meetings replaced in-person home visits and therapy sessions. DeMartino's agency even purchased lawn chairs and met with families out in their yards or on their porches to keep social distance.

Thomas-Winterberg and DeMartino noted that their recruitment of new foster parents has continued during the pandemic. Training is available in-person and online, and COVID testing is implemented before a child comes into any home. Safety has been on the forefront of everyone's minds.

DeMartino

Thomas-Winterberg was trying to figure out how to respond in the event a foster child contracted COVID. When Frostburg President Ron Nowaczyk's wife, Maureen Lavan, and his son, Jake, created face shields with 3-D printers for her DSS staff, Thomas-Winterberg was inspired to partner with FSU in another way.

Thomas-Winterberg realized she needed living spaces in which a child and a social worker could reside together at a safe distance. "I was struggling with how to keep the foster child and our staff member safe."

“Any foster parent will tell you, it's one of the most powerful experiences you can have – opening your home and heart to change the life of a child.”

Since minors are not allowed to stay in a hotel room alone, Thomas-Winterberg contacted FSU about the availability of Frostburg's residence hall suites when they were otherwise vacant during the spring and summer of 2020 when COVID forced the University to switch to online. This way, the foster child and staff member could have their personal spaces and a common area to provide services.

The residence halls ended up not being needed, but Thomas-Winterberg was still appreciative that FSU was eager to help.

"It's good to know these resources are there," she said. "That's one of the many benefits of living in a small community."

Over the years, both agencies have worked with FSU alumni, faculty and staff members.

"We have a long-standing and successful partnership with FSU," said DeMartino. "The University is a valuable resource for our staffing, interns and collaborations with experts in a variety of fields."

Thomas-Winterberg echoed DeMartino. "We have FSU faculty and staff who are foster parents. The best recruitment strategy in any small community is word of mouth – to have someone who knows someone," she said.

DeMartino added, "Any foster parent will tell you, it's one of the most powerful experiences you can have – opening your home and heart to change the life of a child."

If you want to learn more about becoming a foster parent, you can find out information or reach out to a parent recruiter at www.dhs.maryland.gov or www.pressleyridge.org/wmdfoster.