Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.
Child Protective Services took Heather Osborne and Zach Cornette’s four kids from the motel where the family was living last summer, and placed them in foster care. It was a turning point. The couple decided to enter treatment for meth addiction, after which they could work toward reuniting as a family.
Or at least that was the plan before coronavirus.
“We were working on a healthy balance for our life,” Osborne said. “And then all of a sudden, it's taken away from us.”
The couple had stopped using drugs. They secured stable housing through a recovery program. In December, a judge said that their kids could visit on weekends. Then, in early March, counties in South Central Ohio, where Osborne and Cornette live, suspended most in-person visits between parents and kids in foster care due to fears they would spread the virus.
Now, the couple is going through one of the most isolating periods in U.S. history without their kids.
Around the country, a patchwork of regulations currently determines whether children in foster care can travel to see their parents. Some states, like Hawaii and Washington, restricted some or all types of in-person visits during the pandemic. That’s in spite of federal guidelines which emphasize the importance of family bonds during a crisis.
People are allowed to be “playing golf, purchasing cannabis, getting take-out food, and going to a hardware store, yet poor families are banned from visiting their children,” one public defender who's suing the state of Illinois for its visitation ban wrote in an op-ed. “This is not acceptable.”
Ohio has one of the fastest-growing populations of children in foster care, in part due to its opioid crisis. At the beginning of this year, around 31% of cases were initiated in part because of concerns about substance use, according to data from its Department of Job and Family Services. With schools closed during the pandemic, that agency has been getting fewer reports about children who could be in danger. But the percentage of reports citing substance use went up to 47% in April. Meanwhile, the pandemic means adoptions are delayed, along with some court dates and treatments for substance use, according to advocates.
Ohio didn’t outright ban visitations. It advised its counties to conduct case-by-case assessments of whether kids in foster care could safely visit their families. But most local administrators chose to suspend visits during the pandemic, says Scott Britton, of the nonprofit Public Children Services Association of Ohio. They’re working to resume them as the state reopens.
It’s a lot of hurdles and complexity for people on the path to getting their kids back. Cornette and Osborne said that kind of uncertainty can make it easier for some people in recovery to relapse. They haven’t, because they have each other — and their kids, at least virtually for now.
Cover: Heather Osborne and Zach Cornette, who lost their four kids to Child Protective Services last summer. (VICE News Tonight/VICE TV)