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  1. 9-8-8 is Just One Step Towards a Comprehensive Crisis Services System

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    This blog is the second post in a two-part series that takes a deeper look into Virginia’s efforts to integrate the 9-8-8 hotline with the behavioral health crisis services continuum. Read the first blog post in the series here.

    For years, communities have advocated for diverting mental and behavioral health calls away from law enforcement and for states to adopt a comprehensive crisis response system. Now, that dream is beginning to come to fruition. On July 16, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline transitioned to the three-digit number 9-8-8. While this transition was initiated by legislation at the federal level, states are responsible for the rollout and linkages to their crisis response systems when the caller’s needs cannot be resolved over the phone. Virginia has been working on a rollout behind the scenes to link the lifeline to crisis response services that are currently being designed and implemented by state agencies and stakeholders.

    The commonwealth’s plan for minimizing emergency room visits for mental health crises and providing an alternative to calling 9-1-1 is to link the crisis call centers with regionally focused resources by integrating mobile crisis response alongside the Marcus Alert protocols. However, at this moment, this is simply the goal and not the reality. The development and implementation of Virginia’s behavioral health crisis system has been a piecemeal approach, and is not yet fully prepared to deliver comprehensive, trauma-informed, and culturally responsive services to meet individuals’ mental health needs—specifically the needs of young people

    The Surgeon General sounded the alarm in December 2021 by issuing an advisory on the youth mental health crisis. Despite widespread awareness, young people’s mental and behavioral health needs are often an afterthought or part of “phase two” when developing programs and services. Current resources dedicated to young people’s behavioral health make up less than 10% of Virginia’s overall behavioral health agency budget. The lack of sufficient funding and resources further the disparities that historically marginalized communities face in accessing support and services.

    Due to the inconsistent mental health crisis services across regions, law enforcement is often the first point of “care” for mental health emergencies, especially for Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and LGBTQIA+ youth. While most calls to 9-8-8 can be resolved during the call, some crises will require an in-person response based on a four-level call matrix.

    four level call matrix

    This new entry point for mental health support is supposed to be an alternative to law enforcement response, but a new law allows 89 of Virginia’s 133 localities with 40,000 or less residents to opt out of two protocols under the Marcus Alert System. This means that for those living in one of the 89 localities that are not required to implement all Marcus Alert protocols, an attempt to get in-person crisis support may still result in law enforcement, with or without Crisis Intervention Training, responding to your call. The criminalization of youth crises often results in further traumatization. This experience can intensify their crisis, compromise their treatment, and make them and their families less willing to call for help if another crisis occurs. Far too often children and families are met with a response that is not suited to meet their immediate or long-term needs.

    At a time when young people need support the most—while their worlds have been turned upside down by COVID-19—we must ensure there are providers and services in place to provide access to timely, culturally responsive services, and address social determinants of health to support children and families’ overall wellbeing. This requires investments from lawmakers and interagency collaboration.

    For 9-8-8 to be truly transformative, investments are needed now.

    While all these recommendations are not immediate and some are considerations for future policy, Voices for Virginia’s Children suggests the following key recommendations:

    • Mobile Crisis services need to be fully funded across all regions, with an emphasis on providing services in underserved and rural communities. Voices also suggests separate mobile crisis protocols designed specifically for youth, as the intervention points at which young people receive support may include schools, parental consent, developmental appropriateness, or specifically trained professionals;
    • Mobile Crisis and Community Care teams should include a peer specialist, interpreter, community advocate, and child-serving mental health professional;
    • More small-scale children’s Crisis Stabilization Units should be placed in communities across the state;
    • Establish an infrastructure for language access and a culturally diverse and appropriate workforce;
    • Mandatory trainings should include equity-centered concepts, including implicit bias training, trauma-informed care, child and adolescent development, and training specific to special populations (i.e., LGBTQIA+ youth and youth with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities);
    • Stakeholders involved in implementation should include those most impacted, such as youth with lived experience and communities of color;
    • Ensure that crisis response protocols and services are equipped to support systems-involved youth and their family members. Protocols should be designed to avoid future involvement in the child welfare system or juvenile justice system.

    Voices will continue to advocate for increased access and improved coordination of quality mental health services for all children in Virginia, regardless of where they live or at what point they seek mental health services. The future wellbeing of our state depends on how we support and invest in the next generation.

    To learn more about Virginia’s plan for crisis system transformation, visit these resources: Virginia’s Crisis System Transformation and Marcus Alert and STEP-VA.

  2. Youth Mental Health Crisis

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    Written by Voices’ intern Abby Aquije

    Increasing mental health resources and access to behavioral health services is a necessary step to mend our youth mental health crisis. If we are truly committed to ending this crisis, we must also consider what factors lead to the situation getting this bad. What is different about our youth today? What has gotten us to this crisis point?

    Youth are feeling alone and disconnected

    Our youth are facing an unprecedented number of stressors that can explain rising rates of depression and anxiety among children and adolescents. Gen Z youth are experiencing stress from sources ranging from school demands to family issues, and even “eco anxiety.” Though these statistics tell us that most youth are struggling with similar hardships, those that work closest to them assure us that this is not how they see it. Recent conversations with Virginia youth directors have made it clear that a key element in this crisis is that youth are feeling alone and disconnected from those around them.

    Most of us have been there, feeling as if we are the only ones stressing about school, social image, or family issues, when in reality the majority of us go through similar issues. As a society, we are becoming more open about mental health issues, yet, there is more to be done. If youth do not feel comfortable talking about their struggles, they will continue to feel alone. Think of a student falling behind in a class. On top of feeling the academic stress, they may also feel shame, which could lead to feelings of isolation and then more serious mental health issues. Even in the Netherlands – whose COVID-19 response included short lockdowns, equitable funding, and high rates of broadband access – student test results revealed a learning loss. How can a student blame themselves for something that is happening globally, even in “best case” scenarios? Why is it that they feel shame rather than solidarity?

    The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the already concerning rates of loneliness

    Loneliness is being described as an epidemic, with over 60% of young adults feeling it. They are unable to connect with those around them and have to tackle their challenges alone. This all makes the perfect recipe for deteriorating physical and mental health issues that must be addressed.

    High rates of youth loneliness can easily be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic: the nationwide lockdowns, social distancing, and virtual schooling all caused disconnection. Efforts to boost human connection were admirable, but the damage is done. No amount of virtual connection can make up for the formative middle school years, high school celebrations, and other important in-person experiences youth missed. While it is easy to point fingers at the pandemic, we cannot forget that these rates were rising prior to it. Social media and changing family structures also play a role in limiting the connections youth build with one another.

    Program Response: Employ connectedness strategies

    As we move forward, we have to be more intentional about forming and maintaining connections. Those that work with youth should prioritize creating spaces for youth to meet and truly connect with one another. Youth thrive when they feel they belong, they need to know that people hear and care about them.

    Most parents and caregivers know the importance of forming secure attachment in early childhood and actively work toward developing it. Attachment building paves the way for healthy and independent children, however, as they grow up there is less of an emphasis on developing and maintaining these sorts of connections. It is important for kids to learn independence, but no one can survive on their own, not physically or mentally. It is no surprise that youth connectedness is a protective factor for negative mental health outcomes and that the CDC supports the implementation of connectedness strategies, policies, and activities. As we move forward, we must value building youth connections just as much as we do infant attachment building.

    Policymakers should push for Peer Support Services before crises arise

    Peer support is an evidence-based practice used to help individuals cope with mental health challenges and improve quality of life. In addition to being cost-saving, it has been shown to be more effective than usual care for treating depression, and is especially engaging for “difficult to reach” individuals. Virginia already has qualified peer support providers that use their lived experience with mental health and substance use disorders to help others with their recovery. These providers are important for recovery once mental health challenges arise; however, their experience can also be beneficial for preventative measures before the issues arise. Programs like Hoos Connected, at the University of Virginia, use a form of peer support by having upperclassmen facilitators bring students together to develop meaningful connections with one another.  Students that participate in these programs report feeling significantly less depressed and as a former facilitator, I can attest to the difference the 9-week program makes. Despite its limitations – mainly the challenge of enrolling youth into a “feelings” class – there is a lot of promise to programs like these.

    Combating the loneliness epidemic will take time as it requires youth buy-in and societal shifting. Working alongside young people as we continue to research and develop solutions will be essential as we move forward in an effort to improve the overall mental health of our youth.

  3. 2022 KIDS COUNT Data Book Release

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    The 2022 KIDS COUNT Data Book was recently released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, an annually published resource that tracks child well-being nationally as well as state by state and ranks the states accordingly. The report is based on the latest available data for 16 key indicators. Policymakers, researchers, and advocates can continue to use this information to help shape their work and build a stronger future for children, families, and communities.

    View the full 2022 Data Book.

    The 2022 report includes the most recent data from 2020. Due to several challenges in data collection during the pandemic, several years of data needed to be aggregated for stable results. A letter from the Annie E. Casey Foundation President, Lisa Hamilton, highlights the most recent data we have that reflect how parents and families are faring during the pandemic. This letter highlights the 1.5 million children who are struggling to make it through the day.

    Overall, Virginia is ranked 13th in the nation. The data in this year’s report include both pre-pandemic and more recent figures. Here’s where Virginia lands in each domain:

    • Economic well-being: Virginia saw improvements in all four indicators compared to 2008-2012. There are 24,000 fewer children living in poverty and the percentage of children in families with no full-time employment decreased by 8% from 2016-2022. Additionally, the percent of teenagers who are not in school and are unemployed decreased by 29%. However, there are still 242,000 children living below a family income of $26,246 for a family of four.
    • Education: Virginia is in the top 10 at 6th place. The percentage of high school students not graduating on time decreased from 18% to 13% (2010-2011 vs. 2018-2019).
    • Health: Virginia ranks 24th. The percent of children without health insurance, improved from 7% to 5% from 2008-12 to 2016-20. But that is the only indicator to improve during the trend year. Children born with low birth weight, child and teen deaths, as well as child obesity increased.
    • Family and community factors: Virginia ranks 17th place. Teen birth rates dropped from 27 per 1,000 females to 13 per 1,000 females in 2010 to 13% in 2020, and the percent of children living in households where the head of household lacks a high school degree went from 10% to 9%. However, children in single parent households (31%) and children living in high poverty areas (5%) from trend years 2008-2012 to 2016-2020 remain the same.

    The Virginia KIDS COUNT data center includes these indicators and hundreds more at the state and even local level over time. For example, interested in learning more about the percent of children in poverty across Virginia? The Virginia KIDS COUNT data center has data available by locality and race. Learn more.

    Sign up to receive data news and updates from us.

  4. General Assembly 2022: Mental Health Wrap-Up

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    The momentum was in place for children’s mental health in Virginia. The US Surgeon General and key advocates declared a national emergency to confront a decade-long decline in children’s mental health. Despite widespread concern, Governor Northam’s original budget proposal did not fund new programs in schools for children’s mental health. To meet the moment, a bipartisan group of legislators and advocates from various communities lobbied for investments in psychological services and counseling. Additional resources of $1.4 million per year will expand the Virginia Mental Health Access Program to integrate services in health care settings. Noted below are other new investments integrating mental health in school settings, increasing reimbursement rates, and supporting the workforce.

    A First Step for School-Based Mental Health Integration 

    Over the last three years, the General Assembly has focused on improving school-based mental health by funding specialized student support positions—counselors, social workers, and psychologists. While students have benefited from better relationships with faculty, COVID presented unanticipated disruptions, rapidly increasing needs, and barriers to vital care. School divisions have responded by allocating federal recovery funds into training, coaching, and even bringing community-based mental health professionals into schools.

    However, federal support during this emergency is impermanent and mental health threats are ongoing. School divisions need resources to continue to support these efforts. Voices led advocacy for additional state general fund resources supporting school-based mental health in flexible ways to assist school divisions in identifying key partnerships and resources. The General Assembly allocated $2.5 million in FY23 to begin supporting school-based mental health services and included language asking the newly established Behavioral Health Commission to study how schools can better integrate mental health services with sustainable funding streams such as Medicaid.

    The General Assembly also approved funding to establish a regional Recovery High School based in Chesterfield where substance abuse recovery is incorporated into the school day. The proposal by Delegate Carrie Coyner was finally approved after the 2020 COVID response cut funding. Other high schools will be able to look toward this model to support health needs in the classroom.

    Senator Jennifer McClellan has been a significant leader on school based mental health and increasing resources for school-based professionals. Read more in her Op/Ed in the Fredericksburg FreeLance Star.

    Addressing Workforce Shortages

    The lynchpin to support the social and emotional well-being of students is having an appropriate workforce. We are excited about two changes that will help address pressing workforce challenges.

    The House and Senate approved HB829, proposed by Del. Tony Wilt, that will provide flexibility on a provisional basis for licensed mental health professionals without certification to work in school-settings. This flexibility will ensure that school divisions can hire more mental health staff.

    The budget adopted by the General Assembly includes funding for a new initiative to help mental health professionals seeking licensure when they must pay for their supervision time out-of-pocket. The new initiative, Boost200, will provide resources to cover out-of-pocket expenses for licensure and match them with approved supervisors. This initiative is poised to make a significant impact on removing barriers towards licensure and diversifying the mental health field. Learn more about participating to address licensure costs or to work as a supervisor.

    Improving Medicaid Reimbursement Rates

    The third area that the legislature improved on mental health services was improving Medicaid reimbursement rates for several mental health services. Federal funds from the current “public health emergency” have increased payment rates for community-based services by 12.5%. The General Assembly approved resources to continue financing those services. The General Assembly also improved rates for psychiatric residential treatment facilities. Many facilities served children from other states and lacked placements for children in Virginia, leading to greater instability for the hardest to place children, who are the focus of the Safe and Sound Task Force. The increased rates should help caregivers meet immediate needs, but challenges remain to ensure that children are not placed in inappropriate and lengthy stays in congregate settings. While increasing Medicaid rates is a positive step, adequate reimbursement is essential to looking after the mental health of economically disadvantaged children and vulnerable children in the foster care system.

  5. General Assembly 2022: Child Welfare Wrap-Up

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    The Foster Care system has been adversely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In the last two years foster families have experienced greater financial stress, fewer foster parents have become trained, and turn over in the workforce has increased from already high levels. In some localities children have been sleeping in local department of social services offices while awaiting placement, resulting in the Governor calling a for a special “Safe and Sound” taskforce to address the urgent needs.

    We are encouraged by the final budget including many of the initial priorities for foster care that Governor Northam introduced in December. Beyond those policies, several new programs were funded targeting older youth in care  about to transition to adulthood. Ultimately, we still have a long way to go to properly fund our child welfare system.

    Here are the highlights of the budget for child welfare advocates:

    Investing in the Infrastructure of Child Welfare

    The instability of the foster care workforce and outdated technology are major challenges in Virginia’s child welfare system. According to a 2018 JLARC report, the quit rate for an entry-level Family Services Worker Specialist is 42%, with retention being an even greater issue in small, rural agencies.

    • 10% increase in staff and operations and Local Departments of Social Services over two years
    • $22 million for the replacement of the outdated child welfare data tracking system. Updated technology, along with updated training and child welfare courses, will allow social services to serve children and families more efficiently. This can reduce the length of time between a child entering foster care and finding permanent care through reunification, kinship care, or adoption.
    • $5 Million in mandated reinvestments to provide additional resources for ongoing mandated activities such as post adoption case management services, mutual family assessments, foster care and adoption services, and substance abuse services.

    Scale Up Evidence & Community-Based Practices to Achieve Better Outcomes for Children and Families

    • Funding to provide fidelity monitoring and evaluation of evidence‐based prevention services, appropriates federal Transition Act funding and fully funds salaries for allocated program position.

    Provide Social Supports & Easier Path for Kinship Caregivers

    • Funding for SB 396 provides that the court has the authority to review a foster care plan placement determination by a local board of social services
    • Funding for HB 653 Delegate Wampler which directs the Department of Social Services to establish and implement a collaborative local board placement program to increase kinship placements and the number of locally approved foster homes.
    • Increase to TANF Cash Assistance Allocation (impacts Kinship Families receiving child-only TANF) – 5% increase.

    Help Foster Care Youth Have Normal Adolescent Experiences

    Virginia continues to rank 49th in the country for youth in foster care aging out without a permanent connection. Investments in this area are desperately needed to support transition age youth.

    • Funding for the development of the iFoster Care Portal, a free internet resource that includes education assistance and workforce development options, as well as independent living resources geared for young adults who have experienced foster care.
    • $1 Million to develop a state-funded grant program providing a range of funding for the Great Expectations Program in the following areas: the hiring of college coaches or mentors, housing stipends, child care, and transportation needs.
    • Budget language directing the State Higher Education Council to examine the feasibility of having a point of contact at each public institution of higher education for students who have been involved in the foster care system.

    Supporting the Efforts of the Safe and Sound Taskforce

    After the budget was reconciled, Governor Youngkin introduced these budget amendments  recommended by the Safe and Sound Task Force which will continue to meet to address the current crisis in placement and the systems level changes needed to prevent children from entering foster care.

    • $592,120 for five positions to support the development of collaborative partnerships between local departments of social services (DSS) to increase capacity to approve kinship caregivers and recruit, train, and develop locally approved foster parents. This effort will support HB653, patroned by Del. Wampler, to facilitate collaboration between local DSS.
    • $1.1 million to create an enhanced treatment foster care pilot program, commonly known as the Professional Foster Parent Model. This program will serve foster homes caring for high acuity children and provide participating foster families with an annual stipend of up to $45,000 per youth.
    • $200,000 to cover the costs of coordination, recruitment, and additional training to foster care agencies.
    • $3,000,000 to support the initiatives of the Safe and Sound Task Force including community-based treatments, support for kinship, foster and adoptive families, and trauma-informed care for children in foster care who are displaced or who are at risk of being displaced.
  6. General Assembly 2022: Health and Wellness Wrap-Up

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    Understanding the social determinants of health (SDOH) that impact children’s lives informs how we advocate for policies that improve the health and well-being of all children, especially children of color and economically disadvantaged children. During the 2022 General Assembly Session, Voices joined partners, advocates, and youth in asking lawmakers to invest in equity and provide access to language services across state agencies, healthy and nutritious foods, and comprehensive health care.

    After months of negotiation, the legislature has reached an agreement on the state budget, including many of these initiatives. Policy changes in legislation and budget language have made progress towards holistically addressing the inequities and disparities faced by Virginia’s children and families.

    Creating an Equitable Health Care System

    • HB 987, sponsored by Delegate Tran, was signed into law and requires the Board of Medical Assistance Services to ensure that all medical assistance program information provided to applicants is made available in a manner that is timely and accessible to individuals with limited English proficiency through language access services. This includes oral interpretation, written translations, and auxiliary aids and services for individuals with disabilities as a reasonable step to provide meaningful access to health care coverage.
    • HB 229, sponsored by Delegate Coyner, was signed into law and requires the Department of Health to collect and analyze information, including demographic data, regarding social determinants of health and their impact on health risks and health outcomes of Virginians.
    • To address Medicaid enrollment, language is included in the budget directing the Secretary of Health and Human Resources to establish a Task Force on Eligibility Redetermination. This task force will help plan and advise the Department of Medical Assistance Services on the unwinding process to ensure Virginians do not lose healthcare coverage. The language also adds American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding to be used for operational challenges linked to eligibility redetermination, such as technology needs and paying staff overtime at local DSS agencies.
    • The legislature has directed $2.5 million in FY23 to continue the contract for an integrated e-referral system for one year. It is expected that the e-referral system will continue beyond FY23 with user fees supporting its operations. The purpose of the system is to connect government agencies, health care providers, and community-based partners to enable participants in the system to refer patients to public health and social services.

    Increasing Language Access and Equity

    • While the funding amount was reduced from the original budget, $2.5 million per fiscal year remains in the current budget to be provided to state agencies for facilitating and improving language access. This funding will allow each state agency to designate a language access coordinator who will be responsible for making sure that agency materials and communications are accessible to all Virginians, especially those who have limited English proficiency.

    Increasing Food Access and Nutrition Security

    • To ensure access to healthy and nutritious foods and boost the buying power of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefit for fruits and vegetables at farmers markets and food stores, $1 million per fiscal year will be directed to Virginia Fresh Match.
    • HB 582, sponsored by Delegate Roem, was signed into law and requires public institutions of higher education to ensure that young people in college have access to information on SNAP benefits, including eligibility and how to apply. The bill also requires each institution to advertise information on the SNAP benefit process on their website and in orientation materials distributed to students.
    • HB 587, sponsored by Delegate Roem, was signed into law and requires every public elementary or secondary school to process web-based or paper-based applications for participation in the School Breakfast Program or the National School Lunch Program, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, within five working days after the date of receipt of the application.

    Creating a future where Virginia’s children can thrive will require intersectional approaches, including equitable, healing-centered policies that dismantle systemic barriers so that all young people can lead long, healthy, and successful lives. While the budget takes important steps forward, we must continue uplifting youth voices to improve policies impacting their health and well-being.

  7. General Assembly 2022: Early Education Wrap-Up

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    Virginia lawmakers continued to create a path for growth and expansion in early education with the outcomes of the budget negotiations in the 2022 General Assembly Session. Building off years of historic state and national investments, the legislature approved significant resources for early childhood for FY23-24. The legislature approved several new initiatives and the bulk of the early childhood expansion proposals in Governor Northam’s outgoing budget.

    After years of significant strain on the child care industry and after a House of Delegates proposed budget made significant cuts to Northam’s proposals, early childhood advocates have something positive to celebrate in this state budget. The final compromise left most of his proposal in place. In recent comments, Governor Youngkin recognized a significant bi-partisan shift to support early education that he hoped the legislature would restore funding to early education.

    Below are the initiatives that will strengthen early education and the child care sector in the budget. In total, the budget includes an additional $76 million in state funds and an additional $7.5 million in ARPA funding for early education and child care.

    Six bipartisan legislators received Child Care Champions Awards from the Virginia Promise Partnership at an awards reception on June 1, 2022.

    Six bipartisan legislators received Child Care Champions Awards from the Virginia Promise Partnership at an awards reception on June 1, 2022.

    Creating a Stronger, More Equitably Resourced Early Education System

    A combination of policy changes in legislation and language in the budget will strengthen the alignment and oversight of early education programs.

    • The Regional Early Education System and Overpayment Fund HB 389, sponsored by Del. Bulova, was signed into law to create the structure for Ready Regions throughout Virginia and capture any overpayment to localities of subsidy funds so it does not revert to other areas.
    • Increasing the VPI per-pupil allocation to $8,359 will reflect the true cost of quality early education programs. In addition, language asks the Department of Education to conduct an annual benchmarking of VPI funding, as is done with other K-12 funding streams.
    • Language for more flexibility in the use of VPI funds will allow school divisions to serve more students with disabilities and expand to serve 3-year-olds in VPI funded programs.
    • An additional $6.7 million will expand public/private options for state-aligned preschools through the VECF mixed-delivery program. These funds will support the early childhood education of an estimated additional 500-600 students, including 200 infants and toddlers.
    • The legislature has directed $3.5 million in ARPA funds to the United Way of Southwest Virginia for a new initiative expanding child care capacity, “Ready Southwest”.

    Compensation and Retention for Early Childhood Educators

    • The approved budget will expand the early educator incentive grant program by an additional $5 million per year to recruit and retain early childhood professionals.
    • While reforms to the hiring process and background checks for provisional employment did not move forward, the Commissioner of Social Services has begun a process review and promise to address the timeliness of background checks.

    Accessibility and Affordable Care for All Children

    • Building off the legislation that passed last year, the new budget continues to expand child care assistance eligibility and reduces parent co-pays. Families with children under five, up to 85% of the state median income, and families looking for a job are eligible now for this assistance. The budget also eliminates the 72 month time limit to receive assistance, removing an arbitrary time limit for families who may have multiple children who could otherwise qualify for assistance.
    • The legislature also provided $4 million in ARPA federal funds to support 21st Century Community Learning Centers. These federal funds will strengthen school-based, out of school-time, programs that are affordable.
    • Governor Youngkin signed SB69 sponsored by Sen. Favola allowing home-based child care programs to be approved on the site of rental properties.

    Healthy Development

    • The legislature provided a $2.9 million increase each year to the base allocation for Part C Services early intervention services funded through DBHDS. This will contribute to services for infants and toddlers with developmental disabilities and delays.
  8. 2022 General Assembly Budget Passes with Bipartisan Progress for Kids

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    Click here to register for our upcoming Zoom webinar on June 14 as we discuss General Assembly results and what they mean for children and families in Virginia.

    After several months of negotiations and discussions among key decision makers, the General Assembly has reached an agreement on the budget. This year’s budget had notable investments in early education, foster care, and children’s mental health through bipartisan support. Since budgets are a reflection of priorities, we believe there are improvements Virginia can make to demonstrate its commitment to young people in the commonwealth.

    Notable investments in the final budget compromise include:

    • Expanding affordable, accessible early childhood education for young children around the state. The budget builds on Governor Northam’s vision to expand early childhood programming and provides funding for regional initiatives in Southwest Virginia and early intervention services for infants and toddlers with developmental delays.
    • State funding for school-based mental health integration projects linking mental health services into schools. The legislature approved $2.5 million for school-based mental health projects as well as the first regional recovery high school in Virginia.
    • New initiatives to address long-standing challenges in the child welfare system include replacing the outdated child welfare data tracking system and the iFoster web-based portal for youth, expanded regional collaboration for foster placements, and additional support for foster youth seeking associate’s degrees to participate in Great Expectations.
    • $1 million each year to boost the buying power of SNAP benefits to purchase fruits and vegetables at farmers markets and community retailers.

    We are proud to stand by the youth and young adults who advocated with us for these investments. And we will continue to speak up for policy changes designed to meet their needs.

    As one of our youth advocates said,

    “Mental health is the same thing as your physical health. It’s just as important, if not more important, so we really need to prioritize that and make it so that everybody has equal opportunities.”

    – (Aaliyana, 16 years old).

    While these initiatives will continue to create new opportunities for young children to grow and thrive, the foundation of their success is economic stability. The rate of children experiencing poverty has remained consistent for decades in Virginia with persistent racial disparities in the percentage of Black and Latino children living in poverty than their White peers. A solid foundation for child well-being rests on a solid financial foundation for their families.

    As a significant commitment to families, the General Assembly approved a partially refundable Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC):

    • Low-income working families who have a higher-than-average tax burden will see 15% of the value of their federal refund returned as a state tax credit.
    • In addition, this summer, taxpayers will receive one-time rebates of $250 for single families and $500 for married couples.

    The refundable EITC for families demonstrates that lawmakers can take necessary action to address long-standing challenges for families that were exacerbated by the pandemic. There will be more work to do to ensure that families receive economic support and stability that will address decades-long trends in child poverty and ever-increasing material hardship experienced by families across the state.

  9. Bill Explainer: SB 56 – Foster Care Prevention Program (Senator Favola)

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    Senator Favola, Chair of the Senate Committee on Rehabilitation and Social Services, has introduced SB 56 to create a foster care prevention program in Virginia. The purpose of the program is to facilitate placements with relatives and ensure that these relatives are provided with the resources necessary to care for the children. Virginia has significantly increased kinship placements in the past few years, going from 5 percent of overall placements in 2016 to 18 percent in 2021 with the national average being around 30 percent. These increased placements have occurred because of several advancements such as, the creation of the kinship guardianship assistance program, creation of a kinship only TANF financial assistance fund, and kin first guidance from the Virginia Department of Social Services. The bill passed unanimously out of committee and is now waiting to be picked up in Senate Finance where the financial impact of the bill will be reviewed.

    The bill would do the following:

    • A child is considered eligible for the foster care prevention program if:
      • The child is in the custody of a relative by a court order; The child’s parent or guardian voluntarily placed the child with such relative; The child demonstrates a strong attachment to the relative, and the relative has a strong commitment to caring for the child; and Had the relative not agreed to take custody of the child, the local department likely would have filed a petition with the court to remove the child from the home of his parent or guardian due to an imminent threat of child abuse or neglect
    • If a child is deemed eligible, the local department and the relative who has custody of an eligible child will enter into a written agreement with the Department. The agreement will include provisions regarding the amount of each Foster Care Prevention program payment. In addition, the local department will determine if the kin, in addition to financial assistance, needs ongoing case management services.
    • Foster Care Prevention program payments will be no more than the foster care maintenance payments that the relative would receive if the relative was the child’s foster parent, reduced by any monthly payments received through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

    *For purposes of this section, “relative” means an adult who is either related to the child by blood, marriage, adoption or fictive kin of the child.*

    How to Show Your Support

    While we await the estimated cost of the program to be generated, we want to make sure legislators know individuals are in support of the proposed program.

    Complete this action alert and add your custom message to urge support for SB 56. 

  10. 2021 Legislative Session: Advocating for Kids in Child Welfare (Updated 2/26/2021)

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    In the 2020 legislative session, a number of key advancements were made for children and families in foster care, however these investments were almost all put on hold due to the pandemic. The pandemic created more challenges in day-to-day activities for foster and kinship caregivers, as well as child welfare professionals. Many children entering the foster care system have experienced adversity and trauma, leaving them more vulnerable to the changes that come with school closings, lack of daily contact with friends and mentors, and other forms of social distancing. Virginia’s local department of social services has seen a decrease in reports of child abuse and neglect but expects a sharp increase as schools reopen. The child welfare system often feels immediate and long-term impacts from an economic downturn with more demands for services and increased parental stress.

    Our 2021 legislative priorities were developed in partnership with members on our Foster Care Policy Network (listed below) and individuals who have lived experience in Virginia’ foster care system. Our areas of priority this legislative session are:

    • Scale up evidence and community based services to achieve better outcomes for children and families, particular those vulnerable to entering the system.
    • Provide social supports to kinship caregivers
    • Help foster care youth have normal adolescent experiences

    View our full 2021 2021 Foster Care Unified Agenda

    Foster Care Equity Statement

    Voices for Virginia’s Children produced our first-ever equity impact statements for the 2021 legislative session. Here you will find data and talking points on the equity impact of the issues we are advocating on. View the full statement here.

    Bills We Support

    Please check this page regularly for frequent updates on bill status and new bills.

    • Supporting “Kin First” |HB1962 | Delegate Gooditis |  Requires local departments of social services and licensed child-placing agencies to involve in the development of a child’s foster care plan the child’s relatives and fictive kin who are interested in the child’s welfare. The bill requires that a child 12 years of age or older be involved in the development of his foster care plan; under current law, a child’s involvement is mandatory upon reaching 14 years of age. The bill contains other amendments to provisions governing foster care and termination of parental rights that encourage the placement of children with relatives and fictive kin.
      • Update: This bill has passed and awaits the Governor’s signature! 
    • State-Funded Kinship Guardianship Assistance program |SB1328| Senator Mason | Creates the State-Funded Kinship Guardianship Assistance program (the program) to facilitate child placements with relatives, including fictive kin, and ensure permanency for children. The bill sets forth eligibility criteria for the program, payment allowances to kinship guardians, and requirements for kinship guardianship assistance agreements.

      • Update: This bill has passed, was included in the budget, and awaits the Governor’s signature! 
    • Court Appointed Special Advocates Sharing Information and Participating in Meetings |HB1866| Delegate Delaney |  Permits court-appointed special advocates to participate in and share information with family partnership meetings and in meetings of family assessment and planning teams, multidisciplinary child sexual abuse response teams, individualized education program teams, and multidisciplinary teams related to child abuse.
      • Update: This bill passed and awaits the Governor’s signature!
    • CSA Implementation and Monitoring | HB2212 | Delegate Plum | Requires the director of the Office of Children’s Services to provide for the effective implementation of the Children’s Services Act
      • Update: This bill passed and awaits the Governor’s signature! 

    Budget Items 

    The following are items included in the Final Proposed Budget that awaits the Governor’s signature: 

    • Funding Local Department of Social Service Positions for Implementing the Family First Prevention Services Act | $16 mill over two years |- Appropriate federal funds for local staff and operations – Increases the appropriation for federal pass through funding for local departments of social services
    • Funding statewide Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA) prevention services program |$14.2 mill | funds to scale up evidence based services for children and families to prevent entry into foster care
    • Implementing emergency approval process for kinship caregivers | $75,000 | – Funds an emergency approval process for kinship caregivers. Children in the foster care system often move from placement to placement and this process will help place children with eligible kin.
    • Casework Salary Increases | Restores $2.2 million | each year from the general fund and $2.2 million each year from nongeneral funds for local social services departments’ (LDSS) to increase minimum salary levels for LDSS family services by 20 percent, and to increase minimum salary levels for benefit program services, self sufficiency services and administrative positions by 15 percent that are currently below the new minimum threshold. These actions should assist in reducing the high turnover and vacancy rates in these LDSS positions.
    • Extended payments for those aging out of Fostering Futures | Adds language to extend payments to children aging out of the Fostering Futures program through September 2021. The recently passed federal Coronavirus Relief and Response Supplemental Appropriations  Act has extended the John H. Chafee Foster Care Program for Successful Transition to Adulthood funding through September 2021
    • Diversion Program for Kinship Families | Adds language directing the Department of Social Services to create a diversion program supporting relative and fictive kin families who receive custody of a child from the court and report the steps to implement such program to the Commission on Youth by November 30, 2021.