Wendy Radnovich got the call from Fredericksburg’s Department of Social Services on May 8, 2017.

“They said, ‘We’re here with Mason and Baby J,’ ” Radnovich remembered.

The boys were her nephews. At the time, Mason was 12 and Jonathan was 2. Their mother, Radnovich’s sister, had been gone for three days and she’d left the boys with a stranger, with no diapers for the baby.

Their mother had been struggling with personal issues for years, Radnovich said. She’d moved a total of 18 times in Mason’s life. The boys and their older sister, Cammy, had already spent several months in foster care.

Aunt Wendy had always been their safe place, so when Fredericksburg social services took them in, Mason told them who to call.

The boys’ birth mother was refusing to sign the safety plan that social services had prepared for her. A social worker told Radnovich about a kinship option that would allow her to take the boys home with her that same day.

Radnovich told the social worker she would do whatever was necessary to save them.

She went straight to the courthouse, where she was fingerprinted and subjected to a background check. And then she took her nephews home.

On March 26, her legal adoption of the boys was finalized.

“Mason told me, ‘I feel like I’m going on a permanent vacation,’ ” Radnovich said. “He no longer has to be responsible for things no child should be responsible for. Fredericksburg City [department of social services] has been their savior.”

A visual titled “The Road to Permanency” on the conference room wall in the city’s social services department shows that placement with relatives is the most popular choice of kids in the foster care system, once reunification with the birth family has been ruled out.

On the board, paper footprints represent each child over the age of 14 in foster care in the city. The color of the footprint represents the child’s permanency goals.

Most of the footprints are yellow, meaning the child’s goal is reunification with his or her birth family. Purple, for relative placement, is tied with green, for adoption, as the next most popular colors.

But since April of last year, the percent of children in foster care in the city who were successfully placed with relatives ranges between only 10 and 18 percent. The majority—between 60 and 68 percent—were placed in non-relative foster homes.

“Back in October and November of 2017, we were rocking,” said Natalie Newton, family services supervisor for the social services department, pointing out data showing that as many as 24 percent of foster children were placed with relatives in those two months. “But we’ve slid down again.”

STRUGGLES CONTINUE

Fredericksburg’s number is higher than the statewide average of foster children placed with relatives, which, according to a report published April 2 by the Kids Count project, is 7 percent—far below the national average of 32 percent.

The report looked at data from all 50 states and the District of Columbia over the last 10 years and found that the percentage of foster-care children placed with foster families instead of group homes increased from 71 percent to 81 percent in that time.

But the percentage of foster-care children placed with relatives hasn’t changed at all.

According to the report, in 2007, there were 7,665 children in foster care in Virginia, with 7 percent placed with relatives. In 2017, there were 4,795 children in foster care, but still only 7 percent placed with relatives.

In Stafford County, six out of 75 total children in foster care last year were placed with kin foster families, for a total of 12 percent.

Spotsylvania placed 12 of 187 total children—15.6 percent—with kin foster families last year

“[The report’s results were] not surprising to us,” said Alison Gilbreath, a policy analyst for Voices for Virginia’s Children, which administers Kids Count with the support of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. “The good news is that there are fewer children in foster care overall.”

Data and research show that kids do better and are more likely to achieve permanency when they are placed with relatives, Gilbreath said. They experience more placement stability and better behavioral and mental health outcomes, according to multiple studies conducted within the past 10 years.

But there are “burdens on the front end” that make relative placements difficult, Gilbreath said.

One is that family members who care for a child outside of the official foster care system—an arrangement known as kinship diversion, rates of which were not tracked in the Voices report—do not get the same financial, emotional and social support as certified foster families do.

“[The family member] is often faced with the same financial burdens as a foster family, but with no support, no case management,” Gilbreath said.

“Kids do better with relatives, but [the relative] might not be able to meet all the child’s needs. In order to bring more structure, there should be financial supports.”

Newton said she thinks Fredericksburg’s social services department “does a good job of diversion.”

“When we first meet a family, we try to identify relatives,” she said.

When a child is taken into foster care, the birth parent can request that the child go to a particular family member, or social workers will reach out to one of the relatives they have identified. But the family will not get financial support.

“They can apply for public assistance [programs such as SNAP or free and reduced lunch] through the department, but they do not get a stipend,” Newton said.

Radnovich completed the coursework and licensing requirements necessary to become a certified foster home for her nephews, which meant she eventually received a stipend for their care. But before it kicked in, things were tough.

She was a single mother who worked full time. She had to find childcare for Jonathan and provide for the boys in addition to her own three children—who were 18, 15 and 13 at the time.

“It was definitely a struggle,” Radnovich said. “I had big support from my family, but without that, I wouldn’t have survived. And without financial support, we would have had to separate the boys.”

FINDING FAMILY

Another barrier to successfully placing kids in foster care with kin is the difficulty of locating and properly certifying the family in a short time frame.

“Imagine you’re a caseworker. You have an emergency—a child needs a safe place to go,” Gilbreath said. “You have a list of approved [foster] families, or you can search for relatives. Then you’ve got to do a home inspection and then you can’t offer them anything.”

The General Assembly took steps this legislative session to require that relatives be notified when a child comes into foster care.

Newton said Virginia uses the software CLEAR to locate relatives and sends letters to all those it identifies within the first 30 days that the child comes into the foster-care system. But she said the database has flaws.

“Sometimes it pulls deceased people or people under 18,” Newton said. “One time it pulled 115 relatives for someone with a common last name.”

Relatives are asked to return the letter and indicate whether they are able to take the child.

The department can then do an emergency approval for a kinship foster family, but after that, it has 60 days in which to complete the rest of the foster family certification process.

“That’s difficult,” Newton said. “The background checks take 30 days and then we have to do three home visits.

“There’s a huge licensing checklist—they have to get a TB test, pull their DMV record, provide references. It’s a lot.”

Social workers often have heavy caseloads, making it hard to find the time to locate relatives and complete the lengthy certification process. Fredericksburg’s social services department has three social workers who each have a caseload of 15 kids, Newton said.

If a child is placed with an approved non-relative foster family for a while until a relative can be found and approved, it can be traumatic to move the child at that point, she said.

CHANGE IS COMING

Gilbreath said other states have prioritized the removal of barriers from recruiting and retaining kinship foster families by ensuring those families receive financial support and making investments in software and human resources that make it easier to locate relatives.

The federal Family First Prevention Services Act, signed into law in 2018, provides some resources for establishing grant-funded programs—such as 30 Days to Family and Kinship Navigator—that help relative caregivers wade through the system.

In Virginia, Buchanan, Dickenson, Lee, Russell, Scott, Tazewell and Wise counties have started using Kinship Navigator and the Voices report recommends that those programs be used statewide.

A report released in December 2018 by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission found that Virginia’s foster care system has failed to meet basic health and safety needs of children in its care and to provide oversight of the 120 local departments.

This year, the General Assembly passed and the governor signed bipartisan legislation to address some of the deficiencies—allocating money to create new positions and reduce caseloads and creating a compliance dashboard and complaint hotline.

The legislation also includes a 5 percent increase in benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which is the only way kinship families who have not gone through the foster care system can get government support.

Gilbreath said it shows the state is moving in the right direction.

“I can’t say enough about how the General Assembly has reacted to the foster care crisis,” she said. “I know it will take years of dedication and I am optimistic and hopeful that the effort made this year will continue to 2020.”

Newton said she also welcomes the changes.

“We realize kids do so much better with kin,” she said. “We would love to have more resource families and more kinship families.”

Radnovich said she was grateful to have an official relationship with social services while she was providing foster care to her nephews.

“There’s a protection there, a cushion,” she said. “If that had not been there, it would have been really scary.”

“I believe in the [kinship] program 100 percent.”

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Adele Uphaus–Conner: 540/735-1973 auphaus@freelancestar.com @flsadele

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