AUSTIN (KXAN) — In a normal school year, students in the foster care system experience a unique set of challenges, including stability, attendance and the need for emotional and mental health support, inside and outside the classroom.   

When COVID-19 hit, foster children and families, along with shelter workers, found themselves at an even greater disadvantage.       

Jonathan, Victoria and Roman Barton. (Courtesy Barton family)

At the start of the pandemic, Jonathan and Victoria Barton were in the final phase of adopting their son, Roman.  They’ve been foster parents for five years, and Roman had been with them for a little over a year.  Prior to that he was in Waco, Killeen and San Antonio.  In the spring, he was finally getting his forever home with the Bartons in the Town of Manor, just outside of Austin, Texas. 

“The week after everything shut down, it was his birthday and then a month after that was his adoption so he missed out on two celebratory events,” Jonathan Barton said.  

The adoption process looked a lot different for the Bartons during the pandemic. They worked closely with staff at The SAFE Alliance, a merger of Austin Children’s Shelter and SafePlace, to navigate foster care and adoptions services.

During Roman’s adoption process, the Bartons found out his sister Aubrey’s adoptive placement fell through. She also missed her brother.  So the Bartons started visits with her almost every other weekend, until the pandemic. FaceTime calls became the norm and since they didn’t want to disrupt her learning at her school in Lockhart, the process to get her in their home was prolonged. 

“As much as we wanted her before her school year ended, we wanted her to finish out her kindergarten year where she was and we would wait until the end of the school year to bring her home,” Victoria Barton said. 

Once the school year ended, the Barton family was able to bring Aubrey to their home as they finalized the adoption process. 

The Barton family in Manor, Texas. (Courtesy Barton family)

According to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, in the last year, 6,017 children like Roman and Aubrey were adopted in the state.  But, there are still 16,065 children in foster care in Texas and 519 in Travis County.     

The latest data book from DFPS is online and has details on the foster care system in the state.

Many of the foster children in Travis County found support through SAFE. Staff at the agency tells KXAN they had to make several changes to their programs in order to safely accommodate the children in their care.

Making sure children in foster care and adoptive care succeed   

During the pandemic, work never stopped or slowed down at SAFE. 

Currently, there are about 40 youth in the various children’s shelter programs. When COVID-19 hit, the agency had to find the technology and space to ensure the children and teens were safe while they transitioned to remote learning. 

“In late February we decided we needed to create a COVID-response team, so the executive team got together and created what we call a COVID coordinator,” said Melinda Cantu, Vice President of Child Abuse Prevention & Intervention Services. 

Cantu says that person was tasked with keeping up with federal and local mandates to shape sanitization, social distancing and PPE protocols for staff and students at the shelter.   

Since the start of the pandemic, each program within the shelter has been separated from the others, including: 

  • Emergency Care (serves 11) 
  • Teen Parent and Early Childhood (serves 10) 
  • Transitional Living (serves 14)  
  • Supervised Independent Living (serves five) 

“Our various programs were going to become ‘households,’ so those households were going to remain secure and the staff would be specifically staffed for those,” Cantu said. 

A quarantine room at SAFE for those who test positive (SAFE Alliance Photo)
A quarantine room at SAFE for those who test positive (SAFE Alliance Photo)

The agency also created an isolation and quarantine room for any positive cases or exposures. All children and teens transitioned to a school building on campus for remote learning where the agency created pods with laptops to make sure kids were in an isolated space during the school day. 

“You can only interact with the kids in your cottage, which makes it difficult for all of our youth, so we have different times that they can be in the common spaces,” said Monica Martinez, Director of the Teen Parent and Early Childhood program. 

This prevented a COVID outbreak and minimized learning disruptions so the students in the agency’s care had a successful transition to the next grade. 

Staffing changes 

Staff at SAFE Alliance also had to find creative ways to restructure their teen parent and early childhood program to ensure the teen parent and child were both successful with virtual learning.  Youth care workers created outside activities, including small reading circles, to keep the children busy and their moms learning. 

Another major hurdle: making sure shelter staff avoided burnout. The solution was to bring in staff members from different departments. Those staff members had to shadow the youth shelter workers for 40 hours a week, while also doing their full-time jobs.  

“We had a lot of people step up and get trained to be a youth care worker which isn’t easy because you have to go through restraint training and trauma informed care training,” Martinez said. 

Success of the foster care students 

A mural at one of the SAFE Alliance facilities (SAFE Alliance Photo
A mural at one of the SAFE Alliance facilities (SAFE Alliance Photo

All students who finished out the year with SAFE Alliance in May, passed. The staff says although the transition to remote-learning was difficult, learning pods, consistent schedules and community resources helped their youth excel.

Behavioral and Education Support Specialists also made remote-learning easier by providing mental, physical and emotional support.

The SAFE Alliance is currently relying on community donations and grants to help provide support to their youth during the pandemic.  The agency partnered with the University of Texas at Austin for its technology needs and called on community groups and individuals to provide games, activities and movies for children in the shelter. 

SAFE also transitioned its foster and adoption training to an online model, as well as counseling and therapy for children in their care. 

Partnering with the national non-profit Solutions Journalism Network, Nexstar stations nationwide are telling unique stories about how the pandemic has exposed inequities for students and the solutions some groups have found to bridge that gap.