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Bipartisan bills aim to overhaul controversial kinship care system

small child hand in adult hand
Liane Metzler

Backers say it would add guardrails to a system where some parents felt their kids had been 'kidnapped.'

A group of lawmakers, youth advocates and Gov. Glenn Youngkin is backing reforms to social workers’ practice of informally placing children with relatives rather than moving them into foster care.

The uneven practices around so-called alternative living arrangements have drawn criticism from everyone from parents to prosecutors for a perceived lack of accountability and due process.

Researchers generally agree that placing youth with relatives leads to better outcomes compared to strangers in the foster care system. In Virginia, that’s often happened informally.

But critics of the system have dubbed the setup “hidden foster care.” The Office of the Children Ombudsman (OCO) noted numerous problems with the arrangement in its 2022 and 2023 reports.

Some parents quoted in the 2022 report felt they’d been forced into giving up their children for an unspecified amount of time without having a day in court.

“My children were kidnapped,” the report quoted one anonymous parent. “There was no court order.”

Identical bipartisan legislation from state Sen. Barbara Favola (D–Arlington), state Sen. Ryan McDougle (R–Hanover) and Del. Katrina Callsen (D–Albemarle) would set up new guardrails. They would also require social workers to prioritize placing children with relatives.

Parents would have to agree to any alternative living arrangement. Potential caretakers would be screened by a social worker, who would also be required to check in on the child within two weeks of placement.

“We're not just turning the child over to a relative or victim's kin family and walking away,” Favola said. “We're ensuring that that place is safe and the family is getting whatever supports they might need.”

One thing that’s not addressed in the bill: money. Relatives informally caring for children don’t get the same funding that’s given to formally vetted foster parents.

“That's just not logical at all,” McDougle said on Friday.

Favola said the lack of funding is tied to federal law, and also noted the groups backing the bills are working to find funding for the alternative arrangements.

The legislation has so far moved forward with unanimous support from lawmakers and backing from the advocacy group Voices for Virginia’s Children, OCO Director Eric Reynolds and the Youngkin administration.

Still, Fallon Speaker, director of the Youth Justice Program at the Legal Aid Justice Center, argued the bill didn’t provide enough due process to parents, particularly ones who didn’t have the means to pay for an attorney. And since social workers could propose an alternative agreement rather than moving the case through the court system, Speaker argued the bill would empower social workers to make determinations about child welfare that should be made by a judge.

“So this would speed track that process, if you will, without any judicial oversight, any testimony, any evidence presented to support the accusations of abuse, neglect or maltreatment,” Speaker said.

In response, Favola said the alternative agreements were voluntary and lasted 90 days, with the possibility of being renewed once before a case went to court.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.