Quincita Fleming can’t hold or breastfeed her four-month-old. She isn’t even sure the baby recognizes her voice.
The infant and her two other children — ages nine and two — are in foster care. That means, for now, the state of Illinois is the legal guardian of the children.
In late March, the Illinois Department of Children & Family Services (DCFS) put a stop to in-person, supervised parental visits during the coronavirus pandemic. Fleming couldn’t nurse or deliver breast milk and her supply dried up. And there are no more trips to the library, parks, skating rink or cuddling; interaction with the children is limited to video calls.
“With a video call, it’s a lot more difficult because we don’t chat that long, maybe 20 minutes,” Fleming said. The toddler doesn’t want to share the screen with the nine-year-old. The baby isn’t responding.
“I can’t notice any real changes in my infant, because I’m used to going off of his energy, holding him, breastfeeding him. And now I don’t see the same reactions, because I don't know if he knows it’s me. Infants know their mother’s scent,” Fleming said. “It’s very emotional for me, because I can’t put myself with each one of them through a phone screen.”
Fleming is part of a group of four mothers pushing DCFS to restore parental visitation rights in spite of the COVID-19 crisis.
The mothers are represented by attorneys with the Cook County Public Defender’s office, who on Wednesday filed a temporary restraining order in Cook County Circuit Court, demanding in-person visits be restored for parents trying to permanently reunite with their children.
On March 25, DCFS suspended in-person supervised visits between parents and children in foster care because of COVID-19. The policy says phone and video conferencing can be replacements while the state is under a stay-at-home order.
Wednesday's complaint takes a different view, including that of a clinical psychologist who warns that video and audio calls fail for children under three years old, because children that age depend on physical proximity. Mothers in the legal complaint say the lack of contact with their children is creating emotional harm.
Aaron Goldstein is chief of the civil division of the Cook County Public Defender’s office, which represents parents trying to reunite with children removed from their custody. He said even when the governor lifts the stay-at-home-order, problems remain in a system overwhelmingly poor and black.
“That means we will have had close to two months of no visits for a lot of families, and then how does that play into their case going forward?” Goldstein said. “So even if [the stay-at-home order] ends on May 31, it doesn’t end for our clients, as their case continues and potentially has some serious, serious negative impacts on reunification of bringing these families back together, which in theory is the goal of this system.”
By contrast, Goldstein said, if the state order allows people to golf, buy fertilizer and order food from a restaurant, parents should be allowed to visit a child in person. The next step is for DCFS to answer the complaint, and Goldstein said he expects to get more information by next week. DCFS did not respond to WBEZ by publication time.
The Shriver Center on Poverty Law is supporting the call to reverse suspension of in-person supervised visits, saying the policy contradicts federal guidance.
“It is something that unjustly interferes with parents’ statutory and constitutional rights to parent, to family integrity,” said Tanya Gassenheimer, a staff attorney at the center. “What we’re hearing is that parents are just not getting these visits, which means in these really scary, trying, unprecedented times, these parents have the extra layer of trauma of being cut off from their children.”
Gov. JB Prtizker earlier this week said Illinois' child welfare system is looking at accommodations, but added that the distancing policy won’t go on forever.
Meanwhile, for Mother’s Day on Sunday. Fleming said she might ask if she can make an additional video call with her children.