Adoption days can brighten a month of work, said Judge Bernadette Conway, chief administrative judge for juvenile matters for the State of Connecticut.
“We all used to fight over who got to do them because they were so much fun,” she said.
Often the courthouse is filled with balloons as family and friends gather, sharing sweets and excitement about a soon-to-be member of the family.
Such celebrations have been impossible unfortunately since policies were put in place to limit the spread of COVID-19.
“The courts had to drastically reduce its work product in March and we have since worked very hard getting things back up and running,” Conway said. “Initially, we weren’t able to do any adoptions, but by summer we were able to create a situation where we were processing and ruling on adoptions without the parties having to come to court.”
361 adoptions were granted between March 1 and October 25, 2019. Just 155 were granted statewide over the same time period in 2020.
The process is completed entirely with paperwork. According to Conway, the paper process and a new virtual adoption hearing option that began this fall will continue for the foreseeable future to prevent large crowds that might spread COVID-19.
“DCF files paperwork and a judge reviews it and issues a ruling granting the adoption request,” she explained.
Almost all requests for adoption are eventually granted, but the delays have lengthened the time for many children to be assured a permanent home and family.
“They’re not being able to achieve that final permanency,” Conway said. “Depending on the individual direction, some children have already waited a long time to get to the point of adoption and a delay can be very challenging.”
Added burdens on foster families
Not only has the final step toward adoption been delayed, but family reunification or the termination of parental rights as well, depending on the trajectory of a given case.
The pandemic has delayed and halted programs for children and families.
For several months this spring and summer, children in foster care were unable to visit in person with their birth families, instead relying on facetime and zoom to stay connected.
“Foster parents have done phenomenal work to connect the children that they are caring for with their birth parents over zoom or facetime,” said Ken Mysogland, Bureau Chief of External Affairs at the Department of Children and Families in Connecticut.
In addition to facilitating virtual meetings, foster parents took in children without knowing the status of their health. In addition, the licensing process for new foster parents was put on hold through the spring, Mysogland said.
In recognition of these added burdens, last Friday the Governor’s office earmarked an additional $1 million of federal coronavirus relief funds for foster families.
“Our foster parents do a fantastic job with children in state care,” said Gov. Ned Lamont in the announcement. “During the pandemic, many foster parents faced additional responsibilities of caring for children, many of whom are receiving school services remotely and have been unable to access other supports. That clearly warranted an additional reimbursement in recognition of efforts that go beyond the rigorous demands we make of foster parents on a regular basis.”
Mysogland said that children and birth parents are once again able to visit as long as they pass a triage, wear masks and stay physically distant.
Delays complicate reunification and adoption
It’s not just the interruption of visitation that has delayed reunification or adoption, it’s also the interruption of programs that allow parents to retain custody — including substance abuse treatment, job training or parenting classes.
Without successful completion of such programs many parents will not be able to be reunited with their children.
Under state and federal statute, when a child spends 15 out of 20 months in the custody of the State, the rights of the birth parents rights are terminated unless there is a “compelling reason or the parent has not been offered the services to reunify.”
Three to four months can make all the difference in the lives of these children and families.
According to Conway, it is likely that the COVID-19 closures will extend time periods past the usual 20 months leading to longer waiting periods for both adoption and reunification.
“We are taking these case by case to make the best decision in an ethical and honest way to value both the child and family,” Mysogland said.