In December a legislative study found that Virginia’s foster care system is not adequately serving and protecting the state’s children. In response, lawmakers have introduced a slew of bills in the General Assembly aimed at improvements.
The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission study found that in some cases foster children are not being visited once per month as required by law and some are not receiving mandated health screenings. Some 15 percent of foster care caseworkers carry high caseloads, which affects nearly one-third of children in foster care.
Virginia also has a dismal record of placing foster children with relatives. In 2016, only 6 percent of children in foster care were placed in kinship care, compared to the national average of 32 percent.
Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt, is carrying HB 2622 to help remedy the problem. It would require parents to provide the names and contact information of all relatives to the local department of social services in any case where a child is removed from their home.
Another bill, HB 2162 by Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, requires a local board to determine whether any relatives are available to become foster care parents for children removed from their guardians.
It also requires the department to notify those relatives of their eligibility and what options are available.
Allison Gilbreath, a policy analyst with Voices for Virginia’s Children, said sometimes relatives don’t know a child has entered foster care until months later. She said the nonprofit has devoted many resources toward developing this bill in the last year.
The most sweeping legislation is SB 1339 from Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania. The foster care omnibus bill would allow the state social services commissioner to take temporary control of a local board if it fails to provide adequate foster care services.
It would also require the commissioner to hire a foster care health and safety coordinator, establish a confidential hotline to receive complaints from foster parents, and establish a caseload standard for foster care workers.
“It will set the framework and restructure the foster care system that’s been broken for some time,” Reeves said. “And we have a long ways to go.”
Carl Ayers, the director of family services for the state social services department, said the foster care omnibus bill allows the state to intervene before problems arise in local departments.
“It’s a beginning step of getting a new investment of resources into our system,” Ayers said.
The JLARC report suggested the state create an office of the children’s ombudsman, and Austin and Del. Chris Hurst, D-Blacksburg, are co-sponsoring HB 2381 to create the independent agency.
It would investigate complaints against any child-serving agency in the state, including the departments of social services, juvenile justice, education and behavioral health and developmental services.
The General Assembly has repeatedly passed this measure but has never funded it. This year’s bill proposes creating a Children’s Advocacy Fund, which would assess $250 from people who have been convicted of crimes against children.
“I think we need more oversight, accountability and transparency in all levels of government, but especially those that serve children because they’re the most vulnerable,” Hurst said. “We’re ensuring children everywhere are receiving the care and justice they deserve.”
Hurst said he chose to sponsor the ombudsman bill this year because of his experience interviewing foster parents while he worked as a reporter for WDBJ (Channel 7) in Roanoke. He said he spoke to multiple families who had problems with their local social service offices, but feared retaliation if they complained. They told Hurst the ombudsman office would be a perfect place to turn.
The children’s ombudsman bill will go before the Appropriations HHR Subcommittee on Monday.
Ayers said this will allow the state department to use federal funds to help children and families before a child is removed. These measures could help local departments offer more preventative services in an effort to keep families together.