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Child welfare watchdog gets to work in Virginia

Child's hand in adults
Virginia ranks worst in the nation in terms of foster care discharge, one of the challenges set to be addressed by the new Office of the Children's Ombudsman. (Photo: Juan Pablo Serrano Arenas)

The long-awaited Virginia Office of the Children’s Ombudsman is now up and running.

It was created to provide more oversight of the state’s child welfare system and independently investigate complaints from the public about the actions or decisions of social services departments in child abuse and foster care cases.

Advocacy groups have been pushing for this sort of one-stop shop for the state’s child welfare system for decades. ​​

“This office has the potential to help Virginia DSS comprehensively identify the extent, causes and locations of serious problems within our foster care system,” said Kristin Lennox with Voices for Virginia’s Children, “for which we are currently ranked 50th in the country for the worst discharge from foster care.”

Prior to the creation of the office, Lennox said families and caregivers often felt they had nowhere to turn to deal with issues they were encountering; some feared retaliation if they made a complaint to DSS because of the department’s ability to remove a child.

The Virginia General Assembly approved legislation in 2020 to establish the ombudsman’s office, following a report and recommendation from the state’s nonpartisan research agency in 2018.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration has already begun working with the new ombudsman to solve a crisis facing young people in the foster system: More than 150 slept in hotels, emergency rooms and local government offices last year because of a shortage of foster homes.

“This past weekend, not a single child in Virginia was sleeping in a government office. That is extraordinary,” Youngkin said.

Youngkin announced last month the creation of the Safe and Sound Task Force to deal with the issue directly. Eric Reynolds, the ombudsman’s first director joined in the effort.

“I was really impressed with the swift response of the administration,” said Reynolds, who was appointed by former Gov. Ralph Northam in June. “The administration took to that and took action; not just talked about it, not just met about it, not just Zoomed about it, but did something.”

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.