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Report Calls For State Foster Care System Reforms, Oversight

Children play with a soccer ball in a park
RODNAE Productions
Foster children in Virginia are less likely to be placed with relatives than those nationally.

Only about 6% of Virginia youth in foster care were placed with relatives in fiscal year 2016, compared to over 30% nationally. At the same time, research shows that youth who live with relatives instead of strangers are more likely to do well long-term.

“It’s sort of mind boggling that we have not just low numbers but ultra low numbers of utilization of relatives as foster parents,” said Valerie L’Herrou with the Virginia Poverty Law Center.

The report recommended requiring local social service departments to conduct - at minimum - annual searches for relatives for youth not placed with relatives, or for those with no clear permanent placement options.

“There’s a cost to it,” said Allison Gilbreath with Voices for Virginia’s Children. She points to a pilot program called 30 Days To Family that is doing a good job connecting youth to relatives: they identify and interview 80 prospective relatives in 30 days.

But, Gilbreath says, that requires resources that some localities just don’t have. “It’s just easier to find a non-relative placement because they have that list of licensed foster homes already,” she said. “It takes them additional steps to find a relative.”

While more federal funds will be available this year to reimburse kinship care providers for things like mental health and substance abuse services through the Family First Prevention Services Act, Gilbreath says the state has to have the infrastructure in place to support and sustain that growth.

“They [foster care and kinship groups] can’t scale themselves up,” Gilbreath said.

The report also highlighted other inadequacies in the state’s foster care system, including a lack of oversight of local agencies. Currently, L’Herrou says, there are five regional offices that oversee 120 local departments. She says that’s a problem: with too few resources dedicated to oversight.

It’s not just the regional offices that are stretched. The report also discussed high caseloads for caseworkers: in July of this year, 15 percent had a caseload greater than 15 children. At the root of that problem: recruitment and retention.

“These problems have been out there for a really long time,” L’Herrou said. “Some front-line workers are making $27,000 a year and are paying $1,000 a month in health insurance costs: basically half their salary. They people leave the first chance they get.”

The report also cited drug abuse among birth parents as the primary driver for foster care placements. Also: there was a 21% increase in the number of children younger than five in foster care between 2013 and 2018.

Megan Pauly covers education and healthcare issues in the greater Richmond region. She was a 2020-21 reporting fellow with ProPublica's Local Reporting Network and a 2019-20 reporting fellow with the Education Writers Association.