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St. Louis-Area Foster Care Adapts To Coronavirus

The Annie Malone Children and Family Center's administrative facility was built in 1922 to house orphans. Anne Malone donated $10,000 for its construction.
File Photo | Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio
Annie Malone Children and Family Services CEO Sara Lahman said the virus is preying on the community that the agency serves. Most of the families and children it supports are at a great risk of being impacted by COVID-19.

As foster care administrators in the region try to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus within their agencies, they are preparing for what could be an extremely trying time for children in their care.

Annie Malone Children and Family Services provides intensive care for children with extreme behavioral issues, so the enforcement of social distancing and school closures will significantly impact the foster children they serve.

“The students who come to us come to us because of severe emotional and behavioral mental health challenges,” said Patricia Washington, vice president of development and external affairs for Annie Malone Children and Family Services. “It is not a regular learning setting where you can just sit the student down in front of the computer and have a very positive educational experience.” 

While virtual learning for some school districts and universities is in effect, the agency's students need daily one-on-one staff support and therapy.

Annie Malone also serves children experiencing homelesses and abuse and neglect. In addition to providing a safe space, it offers 24-hour care to displaced adolescents with heightened behavioral issues through its residential care facility and houses children whose parents have lost custody in its crisis center.  

Its learning institution — Emerson Academy Therapeutic School — offers an intimate educational environment and treatment courses to ensure mental and emotional success as they navigate through unstable conditions. Because Emerson and other schools are tied to the city school calendar, that will remain closed — possibly until mid-April, according to school district projections. 

Getting creative

For now, Annie Malone’s administrators are working on a learning plan for children who are housed in their residential and crisis centers.

Washington said since the students they serve have limited to no access to the internet, Emerson Academy teachers plan to provide prepared assignment packets for the students to continue learning from home until they are allowed to return to the academy. And to supplement virtual learning, the agency plans to have therapists perform in-person therapeutic interventions.

“These students are very, very fragile, and even minor disruptions in their routine and order can set them back in terms of the progress they've made while they've been with us,” Washington said.

With school closures, financial issues arise for nonprofits like Annie Malone as well. CEO Sara Lahman said the outbreak has taken a toll because of the extra health precautions and measures it has to put in place.

“This virus is preying on our community, and we sit in a community [where] the ones that are really going to be impacted with employment are the families that we serve. And so that puts our children at even higher risk of abuse and neglect,” Lahman said.

Safety and balance

Michael Meehan, executive director of Good Shepherd Children and Family Services, said his main concern with handling the virus is creating safety and balance for the agency’s foster children and families, as well as its staff.

Most children in foster care receive routine counselor visits — whether at their foster home or at an agency. Meehan said his staff will continue that process virtually for now. 

“Children want and need to be connected. That's an important part of healing them and bringing them back together. And so we don't want to lose that either,” Meehan said.

Good Shepherd's staff are also coaching the agency's children and foster families on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and creative ways to socially distance themselves.

The health and safety of children under Meehan’s care is his main concern, but he is also worried about how many children’s foster care cases will be delayed since family courts in the region are slowly limiting appearances at this time.

With financial support from the Catholic Charities Archdiocese of St. Louis, the agency should be able to weather the effects of COVID-19, Meehan said. As for Annie Malone Family and Children Services, Lahman said it needs help from the community now more than ever. 

The agency set up an Amazon Wish List that includes household supplies that will not only be given to the children in the agency but also to the families the agency has long served in the Greater Ville neighborhood.

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Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.