When Video Chat Is the Only Thing Holding Your Family Together

When Video Chat Is the Only Thing Holding Your Family Together
Illustration: Angelica Alzona/Gizmodo

Lizmarie Oropeza imagined that when her 17-month old foster son, Caden, hit his milestones — pointing, learning to walk, speaking his first words — his biological family would be able to celebrate alongside her. Then coronavirus hit. In Oropeza’s home-state of Connecticut, visitation between families and children in the child welfare system has come to a halt under stay-at-home orders. Caden’s mother and grandparents haven’t seen him in three months. His father, who had planned on visiting in March, has never even met him.

“He’s dying to see him and be with him and hold him,” Oropeza told Gizmodo.

Instead, the family has to settle for video calls. Each week, for 15 minutes, they watch as Oropeza sits down with Caden in front of her phone. Oropeza keeps the visits short, because Caden (whose name has been changed to protect his privacy) can’t focus on the screen for long. Still, each week, Caden’s family watches as the little boy toddles out of the screen, totally disinterested.

“He is not into the phone at all. He doesn’t even want to look at the phone. So I sweat, following him around,” Oropeza told Gizmodo.

For the majority of kids in the child welfare system, foster care is a temporary situation that lasts a median of 14 months, according to Child Welfare Information Gateway. In most cases, reunification of families is the goal, Jennifer Bellamy, a professor of social work at the University of Denver, told Gizmodo. Regular visits between kids and their families were an essential part of the reunification process, until covid-19. But in many U.S. states, these visits are now happening over video chat.

For older kids, this way of connecting is adequate, though less than ideal, social workers say. But experts in child development are concerned about the majority of kids in the child welfare system who are less than five years old. For young children, maintaining an attachment to their parent is essential to a successful reunification — and some experts question whether virtual communication alone is enough.

“If they are reunified, they go back to a family that they’re going to have a learning curve with,” Dorian Traube, a professor of social work at the University of Southern California, told Gizmodo, noting that the separation frays the bond between child and parent.

According to a school of thought called attachment theory, attachment to a caregiver lays the foundation for a child’s development, emotional wellbeing, and ability to form relationships with others. Children can form many attachments — including to their foster families. But over the years, there has been a growing recognition within the child welfare system of the importance of the relationship between children and their parents, Annette Semanchin Jones, a professor of social work at the University of Buffalo, told Gizmodo.

“Generally, the child welfare system is really on a positive path in acknowledging and using child development theories and recognising the importance of attachment,” Semanchin-Jones told Gizmodo. The connection with parents remains important, even when they’re not always present.

There is evidence that young children and babies can engage with an adult over video chat. Studies suggest that babies as young as one year old learn more from video chat than they do from pre-recorded videos. In one study, toddlers who spent a week regularly video chatting with psychologists remembered the scientist they worked with when meeting in person and preferred them to strangers. In a modern revival of the classic “strange situation” experiment, mums left their babies in a room alone. Babies became distraught when their mums left. When their mums’ voices appeared on a telephone, they continued to cry. But when their mums’ faces appeared on video chat, they calmed down.

“All this is promising, if you’re thinking of ways to keep visits going,” Rachel Barr, a developmental psychologist at Georgetown University, told Gizmodo.

But for babies and young children, video chat alone still doesn’t cut it. When they’re first learning to communicate, kids connect with others in three ways: through touch, visual cues, and a back-and-forth, Cynthis Burnson, senior researcher at the National Council on Crime and Delinquency told Gizmodo. Video chat can’t perfectly replicate any of these elements.

For example, when conversing in person, people make direct eye contact. But during a video chat, we rarely look directly at our camera, so we appear to gaze downward or to the side. This might not phase adults, who take in the context of the interaction. But for babies, eye contact is crucial, and even this slight change makes a huge difference in their ability to connect, Burnson told Gizmodo. In a 2001 study published in Developmental Psychology, researchers fed babies while either making direct eye contact, or while gazing at the baby’s forehead. Between two and six days later, the babies showed a clear preference for the adult who stared into their eyes.

Then, there are the lags, jitters, and frozen screens inevitable on a video call. Not only do they impair the back-and-forth element of the communication, it’s deeply upsetting for babies and young children when a parent suddenly stops responding, Georgene Troseth, a child psychologist at Vanderbilt University told Gizmodo. A frozen screen could be a modern iteration of the “Still Face Experiment,” a famous study where parents played with their babies for three minutes and then froze.

“The babies freaked out,” Troseth told Gizmodo. They waved their hands in their parents’ faces, pointed, and finally began wailing. Video chat can have the same impact.

For toddlers and young children, these tiny visual cues and disturbances in connection start to matter less. But then families — and foster families — have to reckon with the children’s short attention spans. As a general rule of thumb, kids can concentrate on one thing for 2-5 minutes, multiplied by their age. (For a three-year-old, that’s 6-15 minutes.) Many families have shortened visits to account for kids’ attention span. Still, even a parent’s face might not be enough to keep some young children — like Caden — interested in a screen. As toddlers, many kids are learning to distinguish what is real, and what isn’t. “They are really, really interested in the real world,” Troseth told Gizmodo, “There’s this deficit in what video can do, and toddlers are not buying it.”

Many kids may not even be able to wrap their heads around the idea that the person on the screen is a three-dimensional person somewhere else in the world, looking back at them. That might explain why Caden has no interest whatsoever in video chat, Troseth told Gizmodo. Developing the ability to understand that an object or image represents something real happens gradually throughout early childhood. “It’s a massive cognitive task,” Troseth added.

It’s clear that virtual visitation is less than ideal — but it’s also better than the alternative, where kids in foster care and their parents don’t get to see each other at all, Bellamy told Gizmodo. “In this moment in time, holy smokes, we’re all just doing the best we can. Is this ideal? No, it’s not. You know what’s ideal? These kids are home with their parents, they’re safe, they’re having an interaction that’s high quality and loving. That’s what we’re all aiming for here,” Bellamy said, “in lieu of that, technology is going to play an important role.”

And in the future, social workers hope that virtual visitation will transform into more than just a stopgap solution. Despite the barrier lockdowns have placed between kids and families, many social workers see an opportunity for change in the current crisis. In a post-coronavirus world, when in-person visits are once again possible, incorporating virtual communication could open doors to more consistent, higher quality communication between families.

Before covid-19, Caden saw his mum for two hours every week, and his grandparents for an hour every month. Bellamy envisions a future in which parents get those in-person visits with their kids, but also get to read a bedtime story each night over video chat or virtually join their kids during snack time. Expecting a young kid or baby to sit down and engage with a virtual person for 15 minutes is unrealistic, Bellamy told Gizmodo. But the visits aren’t just for the kids — they’re also for parents. “It reminds them what they’re working towards,” Bellamy told Gizmodo.

Before coronavirus, none of this would have been possible, Carole Shauffer, the senior director of the Youth Law Centre, told Gizmodo. Families work with foster agencies and the courts to determine visitation. To some extent, the legal and technological infrastructure just wasn’t there. But mostly, the resistance to change was cultural. “Social workers and foster parents are not first adopters, or second adopters, or third adopters by nature. Child welfare is a change-averse system,” Shauffer told Gizmodo.

Traube has spent years fighting for the incorporation of virtual visitation into Los Angeles County’s child welfare system. “We were begging to allow for these services, and to get reimbursement,” she told Gizmodo. The county was open to the idea, but never made it a priority. Now, coronavirus has forced child welfare systems across the country to adopt virtual visitation. In the future, that could make visits more frequent, more accessible for families who live far away, and it’ll free up resources to engage more family members in the reunification process, Bellamy told Gizmodo.

Once parents can finally begin working towards reunification once more, there will be an adjustment period. Families may need more support than before coronavirus as they work to rebuild attachment, Burnson told Gizmodo. “Two months is a long time for a very young child,” Burnson told Gizmodo, “the question is, what’s your path forward? How are you going to reestablish that relationship?”

Social workers are adjusting to a new reality. Rachel Barr has begun presenting webinars via the Youth Law Centre’s Quality Parenting Initiative on how to facilitate successful virtual visits. She gives social workers, parents, and foster parents suggestions on how to keep kids engaged. These include having the parents on the other side of the screen hold up toys, playing a virtual game, or having snacks ready to keep the child in place. Some foster parents are getting used to online platforms, developing their own tips and tricks.

For others, like Oropeza, it’s all easier said than done. Each day, she has a different virtual visit to attend to — Caden’s mum, his dad, his grandparents. Then there’s her four-year old foster daughter, Maile, who has weekly visits with her grandparents. Each day, Oropeza bends over backwards trying to figure out how to make that day’s visit engaging. It’s emotionally exhausting, both for Oropeza, and the kids. Sure, she can imagine a future in which virtual communication becomes one element of foster care — just perhaps not quite so much. “Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Easter, sure. On a regular basis, I don’t think so,” Oropeza said.

Ultimately, social workers want a similar outcome: A future in which virtual communication doesn’t usurp in-person, but supplements it. Child Welfare is at a crossroads; the growing pains it’s experiencing now could lead to positive outcomes for families later on. “In some ways, I think the child welfare system has been reluctant to engage in use of technology,” Semanchin-Jones told Gizmodo, “And in some ways I think covid-19 has helped really force the system to adopt some things that I think might be really helpful as we emerge post pandemic.”