Yesterday, a federal judge in South Carolina issued an opinion and order that is strongly in line with the policy changes that Children’s Rights has been urging to address the immediate health risks to children in group living situations amidst the COVID-19 pandemic: it is impossible for children who share eating, sleeping, bathroom, educational and recreational space to comply with social distancing recommendations. The dangerous conditions children already face while living in group homes or detention facilities are now exacerbated by the risk of becoming infected, especially as the infection rate climbs in the state.
The case, Michelle H. v. McMaster, was filed over five years ago by Children’s Rights and co-counsel South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center and Matthew T. Richardson seeking reform on behalf of the nearly 3,400 children in foster care statewide. On October 4, 2016, U.S. District Judge Richard M. Gergel granted final approval of a landmark settlement requiring dramatic changes for South Carolina’s foster care system.
In the order filed June 22, 2020, Judge Richard Mark Gergel found that the pandemic presents a risk to every child in congregate care, stating “the pandemic in many ways exacerbated the weaknesses of the State’s child welfare system and made some of the critical reforms even more urgent.” While some of the provisions will require time accommodations to meet, the Court directed that the following be met by July 1, 2020, to enforce protections now for children in state care:
- Increases to all foster parents and kin in order to increase the pool of families for kids moved out of facilities.
- Increase capacity for kinship and fictive kinship licensing in order to support and accelerate the move for kids from congregate settings.
- A review of every single child in congregate care to maximize releasing kids from these vulnerable settings and into homes.
Kudos to Judge Gergel for keeping South Carolina’s children safe!