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COVID-19 putting strain on child foster care system

Finding good, loving homes has always been a challenge, but the pandemic has put an even bigger strain on the system.

HOUSTON — An estimated 400,000 children across the United States are in foster care. Finding good, loving homes has always been a challenge, but the pandemic has put an even bigger strain on the system.

The Greater Houston area is no stranger to that impact.

A black and white photo captures a day that Cortney Naylor will never forget.

“Oh, it was very exciting,” Naylor said.

On Feb. 26, 2020, surrounded by loved ones, she and her wife, Kelly officially adopted siblings Emersyn, 4 and Samuel, 3. Their journey began as foster parents.

“Fostering is very much an emotional roller coaster. So many things change throughout the process,” Naylor said.

Behind those smiles, Cortney says, are struggles many do not see such as court delays, unscheduled visits, classes and unexpected changes, which the Naylors are learning can be even more trying during a pandemic. The couple is now fostering a third child.

“We're supposed to go to court in a certain month, and that didn't happen. It got pushed back. So, it is delaying things a bit further, which kind of creates some added stress, added emotional stress, because you don't know what the next step may be or what the outcome is going to be in your case,” Naylor said.

Child Protective Services workers are also feeling the pressure.

“We put our lives on the line to make sure that the children are safe,” CPS Conservatorship Worker Jasmine Smith said.

Smith helps find homes for children in the foster care system. That includes in-person visits, which these days, requires full PPE.

“There were several times where we had to quarantine because we didn’t know the family that we had just visited had an outbreak in the home,” Smith said.

But the biggest challenge, she said, has been the availability of qualified foster homes.

“Children still have to be placed. When the pandemic first started, I actually had to place a child in another state, and I can count on my hand the number of people that were in airports. But it had to be done because that was going to be the child’s permanent home,” Smith said.

Part of the problem, she says, is there aren’t enough foster homes in the Greater Houston area.

According to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, as of October 2020 there are at least 2,332 children in the foster care system and 2,283 eligible homes. That’s down from before the pandemic when there were 2,330 (February 2020), at least 50 more qualified homes.

It is why the Naylors say they have decided to leave their door open.

“This whole process, it isn't necessarily easy and it's definitely not for the faint of heart. But if you have a desire to open up your heart and your home to kids in need, do it, and don't let anything stop you,” Naylor said.

The state says although there are fewer children in foster care since the start of the pandemic, the need for foster homes is still very real. They encourage anyone interested in becoming a foster parent, to learn more about the process online.