With budget amendments passed, nearly $3 million is going towards improvements for Virginia’s foster care system following the 2019 Legislative Session. This comes after lawmakers reviewed a major report last year finding problems with the scope of state oversight into local social services agencies.
A young couple from Central Virginia spoke to us during the legislative session. They hoped to adopt a foster child they took in two years ago.
“We have always wanted to do this, to adopt kids from foster care, but now we’re scared to try again. She said being taken from us was worse than being taken from her biological family,” the man said.
The family tells us they fear retaliation, so we’ve hidden their identities. We were put in touch with them through advocates with Voices for Virginia’s Children, which works to improve the lives of kids across the commonwealth.
“It’s difficult, not many people are willing to talk about it,” the man said. “Especially any that have current foster kids.”
Their foster daughter also had siblings also in the foster care system. Not seeing them took a toll on her.
“You want to fix things when your kids are hurting. You want to fix that and we couldn’t,” the woman explained. “Initially, we were trying to fight to for her just to be able to talk to her siblings, to have contact with them, to have visits with them, to have a relationship with them.”
The agency denied their requests to have the little girl visit her siblings. After months of back and forth, the little girl was taken out of their custody. The parents went to state officials for help but ran into a roadblock.
“There was nobody that could do anything. Pretty much everybody that we talked to agreed that the situation was crazy,” the man said.
“There’s no safeguards in place that keep them in homes of people who actually want to adopt them,” the woman added.
According to a recently released report by JLARC, appeals to adopt foster children were waiting a long time in court and caseloads for agencies were piling up. There are about 5,300 children this year, a spokesperson for the Department of Social Services says. There are also approximately 3,000 foster families in Virginia at a given time.
Sen. Bryce Reeves (R-District 17) saw this study and took action, filing what some are calling the “Foster Care Omnibus Bill,” (SB1339).
“What we’ve seen in our district when working some of these cases is some of the localities tend to have retribution against people who have families who complain,” Sen. Reeves said in a previous interview.
“We need our state to be able to step in certain instances and really provide technical assistance to those localities,” Allison Gilbreath, a policy analyst for Voices for Virginia’s Children, said.
Gilbreath says the bill helps to address multiple problems. It creates a hotline for parents to call with concerns without, fear of retaliation, and sets a 15 case minimum standard for caseloads per worker. She says some caseworkers burn out from having so many children to look after and then leaving their job.
“When you have one worker who stays with that child they’re more likely to get a permanent placement,” she added. “We don’t want kids to stay in foster care. We want them to find their forever families or go back to their families.”
The JLARC report shows 54 percent of kids 12 and older aged or phased out of the system before finding a permanent home, between 2012 and 2016. That’s about more than double the national average, which is 25 percent.
Virginia has one of the lowest rates of foster care entries in the nation. A DSS spokesperson told us previously the department has made “key investments in foster care prevention and adoption over the past two years,” to make sure children are placed with family members before entering the system. The number of adoptions that were finalized for the 2017-2018 fiscal year also reached “record numbers,” a DSS spokesperson added.
Advocates say the money being set aside for improvements in the system will be felt for years to come.
“[Lawmakers] have made a commitment that they don’t want 10 years to go by and we’re still talking about the same issues,” Gilbreath said.