SEATTLE (AP) — Leroy Pascubillo missed his daughter’s first step, her first word and countless other precious milestones. After being born addicted to heroin, she had been placed with a foster family, and he anxiously counted the days between their visits as he tried to regain custody. But because of the pandemic, the visits dwindled and went virtual, and all he could do was watch his daughter — too young to engage via computer — try to crawl through the screen.
They are among thousands of families across the country whose reunifications have been snarled in the foster care system as courts delayed cases, went virtual or temporarily shut down, according to an Associated Press analysis of child welfare data from 34 states.
The decrease in children leaving foster care means families are lingering longer in a system intended to be temporary, as critical services were shuttered or limited. Vulnerable families are suffering long-term and perhaps irreversible damage, experts say, which could leave parents with weakened bonds with their children.
The AP’s analysis found at least 8,700 fewer reunifications during the early months of the pandemic compared with the March-to-December period the year before -- a decrease of 16%. Adoptions, too, dropped — by 23%, according to the analysis. Overall, at least 22,600 fewer children left foster care compared with 2019.
“Everybody needed extra help, and nobody was getting extra help,” said Shawn Powell, a Parents for Parents advocacy program coordinator in King County, Washington.