COVID-19 Pandemic Spurs Rise in Hidden Foster Care

by Vins
Published: Last Updated on

The COVID-19 pandemic has “put roadblocks in the way of approval of family members as foster parents,” Angie Schwartz and Cathy Krebs reported for the American Bar Association in June 2020. As they reported, research shows that placing children in kinship foster homes “often leads to better outcomes” than care in traditional foster homes with non-relatives. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the inability of social workers to make home visits and conduct fingerprint background checks, combined with additional burdens on child protection systems due to stay at home orders, and courts facing a backlog of cases, have led to an increase in the frequency of what is known as “hidden foster care.” Hidden foster care offers cost savings to state agencies impacted by the pandemic at the expense of foster children’s wellbeing and parents’ rights, Schwartz and Krebs reported.

Professor Josh Gupta-Kagan coined the term “hidden foster care” to describe widespread but unofficial efforts to divert children facing abuse or neglect at home from formal foster care placements with non-kinship families. In such cases, a child welfare agency informs a parent that the agency will place the child in foster care unless the parent places their child in care with a friend or relative. The terms of this coercive practice vary from state to state, but “the end result is the same: The child and the parent are separated, without court review or access to counsel and often without a plan for reunification,” Schwartz and Krebs wrote. Because the arrangement is informal, the relative or friend who took custody of the child is “left to care for the child without the supports and services that the child welfare system provides to support children who have experienced abuse and neglect and without assistance in navigating contact and reunification with the parent.”

As Gupta-Kagan wrote in a 2019 article, although families may benefit from avoiding the foster care system, which can be problematic in numerous ways, hidden foster care infringes on the parent and child’s “fundamental right to family integrity with few meaningful due process checks.”

By contrast, kinship placements made through formal foster care programs provide foster families with valuable benefits, including “case management, the support of attorneys and social workers, and monthly financial assistance to ensure that they can meet the basic needs of all the children in their care.” Foster families and parents also have “recourse to the courts when a dispute arises affecting the care of the child,” according to Schwartz and Krebs’ report.

Nevertheless, as states face increasingly severe budgetary challenges during the pandemic, more and more families are being pressured to accept what are, in effect, the lowest cost interventions possible, and hidden foster care arrangements are on the rise.

“The pandemic has resulted in significant challenges for our systems,” Schwartz and Krebs concluded, “but it cannot be used as a justification for separating families without due process, leaving them in legal limbo and not providing needed services to ensure family integrity and child safety.”

As of November 2020, there appears to have been no corporate news coverage of the increase in “hidden foster care” placements due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Foster care, in general, is rarely treated as newsworthy, despite there being more than 430,000 children in foster care in the US, according to a 2018 estimate made by the Children’s Bureau of the Department of Health and Human Services.


Angie Schwartz and Cathy Krebs, “The Risk or Hidden Foster Care During COVID-19,” American Bar Association, June 1, 2020,

Andrew Cohen and Cathy Krebs, “Advocating for Kinship Placement During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” American Bar Association, May 6, 2020,

Student Researcher: Ariana Jordanou (Sonoma State University)

Faculty Evaluator: Talmadge Wright (Sonoma State University)