Voices’ Blog

JLARC Report on Foster Care Highlights Virginia’s Long Standing Failings in Foster Care

Posted:  -  By: Allison Gilbreath

Virginia’s foster care system is #1 in the nation for keeping children with their biological families, therefore reducing the need for foster care. However, Virginia continues to rank 49th in the country for youth who age out of foster care without a permanent connection—on average about 500 youth each year. The key issue is that for children who enter foster care, it becomes extremely difficult for them to exit. The new report just released from the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission highlights that the 120 locally administrated departments of social services are doing a poor job of ensuring that safety and well-being of the children it serves. It also points out that the commonwealth underutilized kinship foster care as a pathway for children to achieve permanency. It noted only 6% of children in care are with relatives, while other states average around 30%.

According to the new report “VDSS has historically narrowly interpreted its supervisory responsibilities, which are set in statute, and past VDSS leaders have equivocated about the state’s ability to assertively supervise foster care services and hold local departments of social services accountable.” The JLARC report reveals key areas for improvement in the foster care system Virginia.

The report highlights the following statewide trends and areas of concern:

● Only six percent of children in foster care were placed with relatives, about one-fifth as often as the national average (32 percent.)

● Of children 12 and older who entered foster care between 2012 and 2016, 54 percent aged out before finding a permanent home—approximately double the 50-state average (25 percent.)

● Fifteen percent of foster care caseworkers in Virginia carry caseloads of more than 15 children at a time—higher than the widely accepted caseload standard of 12 to 15 children per caseworker. Though a small number, the impact is large. These caseworkers collectively manage a third of all foster care cases.

Family First Provides Opportunities to Improve Child Welfare

Virginia has an exciting opportunity ahead with Congress’s passage of the Family First Prevention Services Act, which essentially transforms the child welfare-financing stream.  The act aims to prevent children from entering foster care by allowing federal reimbursement for mental health services, substance use treatment, and in-home parenting skill training before children are removed from their home. It also seeks to improve the well-being of children already in foster care by providing incentives to states to reduce placement of children in congregate care. If implemented as intended, this would mean fewer older youth in care because wrap-around services provided to the children and their families would enable many to remain safely at home. The act creates new standards for children in residential facilities (congregate care), and makes it less likely for children to be placed there simply because there isn’t an available family-based placement for them. The report also highlighted that too many children are in residential facilities without a clinical need, and recommended that VDSS should conduct immediate reviews of cases to identify all children who do not have a clinical need to be in residential facilities and make efforts to place them in family based settings. While Family First does not address all the issues in the report, it does provide an opportunity to begin making long needed changes in the foster care system.

2019 Legislative Opportunities for Foster Care

While the JLARC report points to many troubling areas for Virginia’s foster care system, it’s important to focus on the opportunities ahead in the commonwealth.There are also several pieces of legislation for 2019 that Voices is working on that will put the state in a place to respond to many of the concerns and recommendations listed in the report.

For example, we are working to bring structure and additional supports to the kinship diversion program, an effort designed to avoid foster care by facilitating placements with relatives and supports to relative foster care placements. To ensure the financial stability of relative caregivers, we are asking the state to increase the monthly payments for child-only TANF, one of the only funding streams available for low-income kinship caregivers. JLARC’s report recommended that relatives be prioritized as a placement option, which is consistent with best practices. We know that children placed with relatives, when compared to children in other placement settings, have reduced trauma, improved placement stability, and increased ability to maintain community and cultural connections.

Another area we are working on is supporting efforts that will increase accountability of Child Protective Services and foster care by clarifying and strengthening the authority of the Virginia Department of Social Services over local departments. We hope lawmakers will increase staff capacity at the regional level and create a children’s ombudsman as an independent investigative office. We believe this will ensure that best practices are followed statewide, including caseload limits, increasing the use of relative foster homes, and prioritizing the sufficiency, stability, and professionalism of caseworkers throughout the commonwealth.

For more information, please read our 2019 legislative agenda, sign up for our emails, and respond to requests for action during the General Assembly session.

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