June is national reunification month—a time when jurisdictions around the country celebrate reunifications of families involved in the child welfare system. In New Jersey, we have joined in this celebration by recognizing the people and efforts that help keep families together and the families who have been reunified. LSNJ plans to celebrate Unification Day in person later this year, but would like to take this opportunity to share the story of one of our recent clients. Her story illustrates the discrimination people of color continue to face in our child welfare system, and the particular challenges the pandemic has created for the families involved.

The COVID-19 public health emergency has created additional obstacles for families involved with the child welfare system. Challenges such as virtual family time, welfare office closings, and delayed services, have made it even more difficult for parents to meet the requirements laid out in their case plans and reunify with their children. Jordania's story highlights the many pandemic-related obstacles families involved with the child welfare system face during this unprecedented time.

Amidst lockdowns, business closings, and stay-at-home orders, Jordania feared she would never be reunified with her two young children. The Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCPP) became involved with Jordania's family in September 2018 due to domestic violence issues with the father of her children. Her two children were removed and placed in foster care and, after a stressful eviction in early 2020, Jordania began to again fall behind on rent in her new apartment. When she began experiencing symptoms of the virus, she was unable to work. Shortly thereafter, one of her jobs closed down when a worker tested positive.

On top of the stress of unemployment and rental arrears, Jordania learned that DCPP had suspended in-person visitation in March 2020. Two months passed without any visitation before DCPP even introduced the possibility of virtual family time. Delays in programs and services further hindered family reunification. In order to reunify with her children, Jordania was told she needed to complete a program for domestic violence, which was delayed for almost three months. At the beginning of 2020, she fully expected to be reunified with her children by the summer, but, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this was not possible. Heartbroken that she was not with her children as they were growing up, Jordania noticed that they looked bigger with every virtual visit.

In the fall of 2020, Jordania was finally able to resume in-person visits with her children. While she felt relieved, she also recognized that she and her children had lost time together that they would never get back. With LSNJ's support, Jordania was able to fend off another eviction threat and found a new job. When she was finally reunified with her children in November 2020, Jordania felt an overwhelming sense of relief. As challenging as it was to stay hopeful, her determination and resilience prevailed.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to have devastating effects on families such as Jordania's, we must support parents' efforts to reunify with their children. We must acknowledge that poverty is not neglect, and help families access the resources they need to stay together despite pandemic-induced barriers.