Virginia Department of Social Services

The Virginia Department of Social Services is on East Main Street in downtown Richmond (Patrick WilsonTimes-Dispatch)

More foster children in Virginia are being placed in family settings than group homes, but the state lags behind the rest of the nation in placing children with relatives, a practice advocates say improves the child’s chances of finding a permanent home, according to a new report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The philanthropic foundation's 10-year data snapshot released Tuesday showed Virginia placed seven percent of children in the foster care system with relatives, known as kinship care, in 2017, compared with the national average of 32 percent. Virginia's percentage has stayed stagnant, with seven percent of children in kinship care in 2007.

“Data shows kids do better when they go to a relative,” said Allison Gilbreath, a policy analyst with the child advocacy organization Voices for Virginia’s Children. “They have better outcomes as far as permanency, [they’re] less likely to have multiple placements.”

The state legislature's oversight committee drew attention to the issue last December in a report sharply critical of the Department of Social Services, which oversees the state's child welfare system. The report also found that case workers were overwhelmed, local social services agencies were operating without enough oversight and the Department of Social Services was failing to recruit enough foster parents. 

Agency head Duke Storen acknowledged the challenge at the time and has pledged progress to state lawmakers on the measures singled out for action.

Carl Ayers, director of family services for the department, said that the agency is aware of the state’s ranking for kinship care placements. 

“Virginia makes every effort to keep families together, whenever possible, and is number one in the nation in regards to keeping children with their families, avoiding placement in the foster care system altogether,” Ayers said, in an emailed statement. “While our priority is to support families so that (they) stay intact, we look forward to continuing efforts to increase the number of children placed with their families, when placement into the foster care system is inevitable.”

The number of children in Virginia's foster care system dropped nearly 40 percent in 10 years, from 7,665 children in 2007 to 4,795 in 2017, according to data compiled by Voices for Virginia's children from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System.

But Gilbreath said that there is currently no data kept on children who are diverted from foster care to monitor their well-being, although the Department of Social Services is now participating in a pilot project to collect this data.

In an effort to boost the number of children in foster care going to relatives, Voices for Virginia’s Children is calling for the state to increase services to stabilize families before children come into the foster care system, extend the same financial and supportive services to relative care givers that are given to foster parents and expand the program that helps relative care givers navigate the foster care system.

Non-relative foster families receive a $700 monthly stipend and access to case management and resources through the local social services department, but relatives who take responsibility for children do not receive this help, Gilbreath said. This lack of support can make it more difficult for relatives to care for children long term.

But the support is not the only barrier to kinship care. It is costly and time-consuming for caseworkers to track down relatives and assess them to make sure the home is safe.

"It is easier to place a child in an approved foster home when most caseworkers in Virginia are already (caring) for too many children on their caseloads (than) is recommended," Gilbreath said.

Some change is coming to the foster care system after the General Assembly passed several laws in response to the oversight report.

Lawmakers approved $3.7 million to fund reforms to the system, including additional staff positions.

And a bill introduced by Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, and Sen. Monty Mason, D-Williamsburg, requiring that the state alert relatives before a child is placed in foster care was signed by Gov. Ralph Northam and will go into effect on July 1.

“Virginia has made great strides around the issue of foster care,” said Gilbreath, who worked on the legislation. She expects the newly-formed, bipartisan foster care caucus to prioritize working on ways to boost kinship placements during next year's legislative session.

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bbalch@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6601

Twitter: @bridgetbalch

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