Virginia lawmakers approved $3.7 million in new funding to jump-start reforms of the state’s foster care system, months after a damning report from the legislature’s watchdog detailed “avoidable risks” facing children in the government’s custody.
A budget deal struck Sunday secured $2.8 million for an overhaul of the system. A series of related measures seek to expand the preventive services offered to Virginia families, reduce the number of children placed in group homes and increase the number of children placed in the care of a relative.
“We have made so much progress in such a short time to address these issues,” said Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania, who sponsored the hefty reform bill. “We have made the impossible possible in one session.”
Lawmakers were prompted to action by a December report from the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, which issued 34 recommendations to improve the system.
The watchdog found that state and local agencies do not consistently follow “basic safety requirements,” putting children at risk. For example, child welfare agencies are falling behind on safety reviews of the homes where children are placed, and in some cases, children are going without required monthly visits by caseworkers. Many children are also missing required health screenings.
Reeves’ bill would fund a new director-level position within the Department of Social Services to oversee the health and safety of children in the state’s care. The bill will also fund staffing increases at the regional level meant to boost oversight of local agencies and foster care services.
The bill also gives heightened authority to the social services commissioner to step in when local child welfare agencies display significant shortcomings.
“The bill was directly in response of the JLARC response, and lawmakers knew it had to be addressed,” said Allison Gilbreath, a policy analyst with Voices for Virginia’s Children, the leading advocacy group on foster care.
Lawmakers passed another piece of legislation, introduced by Sen. Monty Mason, D-Williamsburg, that would boost the services offered to families to prevent their children from entering the foster care system.
The bill brings the state’s preventative services up to new federal standards, which require evidence-based programs like home visiting and trauma focused-cognitive behavioral therapy.
The bill also seeks to improve the standard of care children receive in group facilities by requiring accreditation that aligns to new federal standards. Mason said that just 39 out of 141 facilities meet the accreditation standards, which require such things as 24-hour nursing and medical care.
“We need to target the ones that are close to being qualified and see if there’s anything DSS can do to help them get there,” said Mason, adding that the legislature did not approve funding to help bring facilities up to standard.
Lawmakers backed a bill introduced by Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, that would order the state to alert relatives before a child is placed in foster care, in hopes that many families will be able to take in their own.
Legislators approved another bill, introduced by Del. Emily Brewer, R-Suffolk, that would freeze the credit of children who enter the foster care system to protect their credit history from identity theft should their Social Security numbers fall into the wrong hands.
Mason and Brewer chaired a newly formed Foster Care Caucus. Mason said the work of the caucus will continue, with many issues still unaddressed.
Among them is the large caseload that burdens many caseworkers in the state, according to the JLARC report.
“In most places, workers have far too many cases beyond the standards,” Gilbreath said. “We can’t continue to expect caseworkers to make such low salaries when they are faced with such extraordinarily difficult, traumatic work, with little room for advancement.”