See more of our coronavirus coverage, including community resources and personal stories.

Since the pandemic struck, life inside the state’s group homes for children has radically changed.

Hailey lives in a house with five other kids. When I talked to her last month, she told me they were all starting to feel cooped up. 

“The kids are starting to butt heads,” Hailey said. “So I try not to go crazy. I am basically in my room all day, just reading or doing something to stay away from the others.”

Before the pandemic, Hailey could go out for walks and to hang out with friends. She could have overnight visits. But DCYF stopped holding in-person visits March 16. The department has helped set up phone and video calls. But, Hailey said, it’s not the same. 

“Especially for younger kids that are in group homes, you're not used to always being away from your parents. You're used to at least having visits with them, or doing overnights with them,” Hailey explained. “Now, they can't do a visit. They are basically in a lock-down, where they can't even see family. Like, I had one girl actually crying today because it's her birthday, and she can't even see her mom.”

Canceling family visits and keeping kids inside are part of the state’s effort to keep COVID-19 out of group homes. 

Young people in general are much less likely to have serious symptoms from COVID-19 than nursing home residents. But children in foster care are significantly more likely to have asthma, obesity and chronic medical conditions that put them at higher risk from the virus.

DCYF’s first line of defense was to move young people out of group homes. At the beginning of March, the department had 390 children in congregate care. So far, about 40 kids have been moved out. Some were moved into foster homes.  Others were returned home to their parents under DCYF’s supervision.

DCYF Acting Director Kevin Aucoin said, That was all part of the strategy that we wanted to reduce the congregate care census to minimize risk in terms of potential COVID contamination.”

Moving out of the group homes isn’t an option for all kids. For those who remain, the state is advising group homes providers to disinfect surfaces, monitor residents for symptoms,  limit large-group activities, and require staff to wear face masks. 

But staff say social distancing within group homes is nearly impossible. 

Kersten Brothers is a behavioral specialist at The Groden Center, which serves children and adults with autism. Most of the time she works in the center’s day school. But she’s been working in the residential program ever since school shut down for the year. 

“We can't really stay six feet apart to teach these children because a lot of it's one-on-one, hands-on,” Kersten said. “Especially if you're doing even like basic handwriting, if they need help hand-over-hand. So it's kind of impossible to not be in physical contact with them."

Sometimes, staff need to restrain kids who might hurt themselves or others. That means multiple adults in close physical contact with a child at once. In the heat of the moment, it’s easy for a mask to slip. 

The danger is not just for the children, it’s also hazardous for the workers. As of last week, 13 of Kersten’s coworkers have tested positive for COVID-19. 

“It's scary because we're trying to limit the amount of people going in between the houses because we don't want to risk more exposure. But there's still not a lot of staff. So when someone calls out, a lot of times they have to have somebody from the other house come in and kind of take over for that staff that calls out. And you don't know if they've been exposed or if they potentially have it.”

The potential for the virus to spread under these conditions is high. 

An outbreak in programs run by Bradley Hospital infected 10 residents, according to the state Executive Office of Health and Human Services. A hospital spokesperson said that residents who tested positive were quarantined together, and the four group homes it operates are being professionally disinfected.

Other facilities have taken similar steps, including the Rhode Island Training School, where three youth have tested positive for COVID-19. And Family Service of Rhode Island closed two group homes, after a brush with the coronavirus forced about 20 staff members into quarantine.

But keeping the virus out is the first goal. 

DCYF is now checking children who come into state care for coronavirus symptoms as part of the standard medical screening. 

Another worry is kids who’ve run away from group homes, and come back, potentially bringing the virus with them. DCYF worked with two private agencies -- Communities for People and Community Care Alliance -- to convert a Providence triple decker into an emergency intake center where kids could stay safe while waiting for their test results. 

“It's equipped to take a youth who is returning from AWOL status, during the day or in the middle of the night, with the knowledge that that youth obviously needs to be medically screened and tested for COVID,” said DCYF Acting Director Aucoin. 

And, he added, the need was immediate.

“It opened up on a Friday in the afternoon. That Friday afternoon, we had our first youth go in that program. And we were able to accommodate a youth that absolutely had nowhere else to go that evening. That was huge.” 

The state has also renovated a cottage at the former Zambarano Hospital in Burrillville where kids in state care could recover from COVID-19, if needed. 

Even as they work to address current cases, residential program operators are beginning to prepare for the shutdown to end.

“None of these programs were envisioned really as health care facilities,” commented Tanja Kubas-Meyer, director of the Rhode Island Coalition for Children and Families.

“And so they may not have the right physical layouts. Some folks have medical consultation or nurses on staff. Most don't. All of those things are creating a lot of stress right now. And I hope that, going forward, these programs can be fully equipped and remembered to be the frontline workers in this crisis that they have become.”

The state’s reopening will bring a whole host of new challenges. Kids will eventually go back to school. They’ll want more freedom. Parents will want to visit and hug kids they haven’t seen in months. And the number of potential sources of exposure to the virus will likely grow.