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Foster parent speaks out after contracting COVID-19 following a DSS family visit

Tesa Conerly was hospitalized for COVID-19 for a week. She's concerned that her foster children contracted the virus following a family visit with DSS.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Tesa Conerly, a foster parent, is speaking out after she says her foster children got sick following a family visit.

"They went on the visit on June 15th and on that Thursday they started to run a fever, a 103 fever." says Conerly. "That Saturday I started having chills, I started having a fever."

She was hospitalized for a week as a result of COVID-19. She says her young foster children were accompanied by a case worker with the South Carolina Department of Social Services when they were visiting their biological family.

"I messaged the case worker and I said 'hey, just curious, during these visits are you wearing masks, what's happening?' He said 'no, nobody had on any masks.'" Conerly explained. "It turned out, asking one of the parents, they said, 'No, even the DSS workers weren't wearing masks.'"

Conerly says her family has been in the house since the start of this pandemic, trying to make sure everyone stayed safe, as she has an elderly mother and grandmother. She's made sure that her foster children could reach their family members through FaceTime.

News 19 reached out to DSS about the visit, and while they did not confirm if there was a COVID-19 positive case with one of their case workers, they have been limiting family visits.

One of the greatest challenges the agency is facing during this time is around visitation. While it is necessary for child welfare workers to maintain contact with their clients, the threat of the pandemic puts a strain on how to achieve the best quality of care. Currently, face-to-face visitations are limited. In response to the pandemic child welfare agencies around the nation have been limiting or completely cutting off in-person visitation between children and their parents, leaving many families wondering when they will be in the same room again. It is not just the immediate emotional consequence at stake: the extended time apart also hinders reunification. Experts are concerned it will lead to permanent dissolution of families unlucky enough to have open cases during the pandemic.

To fight this physical separation caused by the pandemic, SC DSS early on adapted practices among all child and adult protective services staff which consisted of utilizing CDC recommended screening questions to screen each family prior to a visit occurring to gauge risk of exposure. Workers are encouraged to utilize alternative technology-based visitation practices, such as the use of FaceTime and Skype, when there is heightened risk of COVID-19 exposure. Workers also have been and continue to be strongly encouraged to take all precautions necessary, including encouraging use of personal protective equipment, and to maintain safe social distancing during visits and interviews.

"I just hope people take it seriously," says Conerly. "This was a life changing event for me. I didn't know what was going to happen, how it was going to go. I'm just really grateful to be in the land of the living."