A year of shutdowns and remote learning has impacted the lives of children around the state and country in unimaginable ways. Lesli Suggs, the president and CEO of Home for Little Wanderers joined GBH's Morning Edition last week to discuss. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Joe Mathieu: One big thing that's changed for children is going back to school, getting back in the classroom for many of them for full time classroom learning. But that also goes for your clinicians at The Home as well. They're back in schools.
Lesli Suggs: They are. We are so thrilled. About six weeks ago, we were back in about 20 schools. Not all schools had the capacity to have us back — they’re trying to manage social distancing. But we are back in schools seeing kids face-to-face, thrilled about doing so with partners that are again excited to have us present inside their schools.
Mathieu: I presume that that's important, but I wonder if you can quantify it. After doing a year of telehealth, of talking to therapists and clinicians on Zoom, does it matter when you're in the same room?
Suggs: Oh, absolutely. And there's so many good things that came out of telehealth, quite honestly — connection to families, being able to plug in at all times of day [or] evening to help children. But you can imagine, children experience Zoom fatigue with a full day of remote learning, trying to stay engaged in class and then get on a telehealth call with their mental health clinician. So to actually be back in the classroom for children to be around their friends, teachers, for us to be able to meet with them individually and lay eyes on kids, feels incredibly important.
WATCH: Lesli Suggs on need for foster homes
Mathieu: The Home for Little Wanderers serves children from birth to twenty two-years old in lot of different ways: foster care, behavioral health issues, special education. Let's just talk broadly for a second. After this year, where are the home services needed the most?
Suggs: As you and I discussed last year, we were mightily concerned about what the impact would be on all children, but certainly the vulnerable children that are served by the Home for Little Wanderers. We are seeing greater need. And particularly as we sort of get back to the new normal where kids are back out in the places where they're visible in school after school programs, we know that the need will be there. And we're certainly seeing that in our foster care program. For example, we've seen an increase of referrals to our foster care program. That's true across the state, certainly in April and May. And we don't have enough homes right now to be able to meet that need.
Mathieu: Talk to me more about that. That seems to be the most critical point coming off of COVID that's the complicating factor, I presume — bringing people into your home?
Suggs: Absolutely. And, first of all, our foster families during the pandemic were just simply heroic, continuing to care for vulnerable children at a time when we were all struggling with what the pandemic means. The biggest worry during the pandemic has been that there are kids out there who need our services but are not visible to us, that we don't know who they are, that they're not in the usual places where people lay eyes on kids. The system needs to have the capacity to be able to be able to take care of children and keep them safe, provide love and care until we can find that permanent loving family for them to live in.
Mathieu: What should families do? How should they reach you if they would like to volunteer?
Suggs: They can go to our website at thehome.org and we will work with you to explain to you what being a foster parent is. You don't have to be a perfect parent to be a foster parent. We provide incredible training. We really work as a team holding your hand all the way through the process of identifying a child for your home. And that's the decision that you make, trying to find that perfect match.
I think sometimes folks think, “Oh, my goodness, how in the world? Do I have the time, the capacity to become a foster parent? And do I have the skills to do it?” Well, you don't have to be a perfect parent to be a foster parent — just a loving heart and a willingness to step in when kids need us most. They're children who, through no fault of their own, have found themselves in those circumstance. And it's our job to provide that care and stability and safety for them.
Mathieu: We talked about getting back to school. I wonder what impact that has on some of the concerns we had over bad domestic situations being exacerbated by kids being stuck at home, essentially. Have you found that that was the case? And is that getting better?
Suggs: There is no question that we saw with the families that we work with increased stress — the financial stress being out of work, trying to perhaps work and home school children, the stress level of families was intense. And we know that that had to have had an impact on children, the increased use of substance abuse, mental health concerns. We worked hard to stay engaged with families, to have families [be] able to say, “Hey, I need help.” It's OK if they need help. But we also know that there were families out there struggling who weren't able to get the help that they need. And so post-pandemic as things open up. We know that that that's an opportunity to identify children and families who really need our help and support.