AS PARTISAN wrangling in Washington continues, hamstringing the essential functions of the federal government, the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia—the oldest legislative body in the United States, currently observing its 400th anniversary—is getting things done.
Virginia’s legislature is in session for a mere 45 days this year, but is nonetheless finding the political will to pass vital legislation to address one of our most vulnerable populations: children in foster care.
While Virginia’s legislature has as deep a partisan divide as Washington, legislators have long been able to work together to accomplish important goals. It’s called “the Virginia Way” of governing. I know that by working together, we can protect our most vulnerable children and support the families who desperately want to love them.
As chairman of the Senate Committee on Rehabilitation and Social Services, I’m proud to say that Virginia is one of the first states to begin to overhaul its child welfare system in response to a new federal law, passed as part of the spending bill signed by President Trump in February 2018.
The Family First Prevention Services Act is the most significant overhaul of the child welfare system since the Title IV-E Foster Care and Adoption Assistance program was established in 1980. The new law requires states to refocus foster care spending on prevention and family preservation, and limits spending to only those services that are trauma-informed and for which there is evidence of effectiveness.
States have two years to respond to the mandates and retain their federal funding. But in Virginia, we immediately got to work, examining our laws, procedures, and policies to make any changes needed to enable us to help more children—and the families who want to love them—as quickly as possible.
In addition, even before the FFPSA was passed, the General Assembly had in 2017 ordered our Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission to investigate the foster care system.
JLARC’s findings were released right before our legislative session began, and a broad spectrum of problems were revealed: overburdened caseloads; local departments not engaging families in decisions and reunification efforts; children not receiving doctor visits or reviews of medications; under-utilization of relatives as foster parents; lackluster recruitment of foster and adoptive families; overuse of “congregate care” (group homes or treatment centers); a high rate of aging out of the system without permanent families, and more.
Many of the problems examined fell into one of a few categories: a lack of state oversight authority over local departments; high staff turnover resulting in high caseloads; lackluster recruitment or retention of foster families; or local practices not in keeping with state policy or recommendations.
Our body was quick to respond, and members introduced a slew of bills, some designed to address the shortcomings in the existing system, while others focused on enabling the FFPSA mandates to be implemented quickly.
One of these, the Foster Care Omnibus Bill, which I introduced, has been joined by all 40 members of the Virginia Senate. The bill seeks to address the specific findings in the report, focusing on state responsibility for local department actions.
It would increase staff dedicated to reviewing local agency decisions and congregate care placements; clarify state authority to review and direct local agency placements of foster children; allow the state to take corrective action when a local agency fails to comply with regulations or policies; implement a review process for long-term foster care; and create a new statewide director of foster care health and safety.
Additionally, the bill addresses other aspects of the JLARC report, and would provide assistance to local boards to find permanent families for foster children; create caseload limits; create a statewide program to recruit, train, and retain foster parents, along with a database of licensed foster homes; require local agencies to more closely involve biological parents in decisions affecting foster children; and a host of other measures.
I also joined with other legislators in a new Foster Care Caucus, with members from both houses and both parties, some with their own history of being a foster or adopted child or parent or just a dedication to doing the “very best” by those children in the care of the commonwealth.
Many have been surprised that I have teamed up with Senator Janet Howell, a senior Democratic member of the state Senate, on this effort. Senator Howell has submitted the budget amendment to support the staffing and other requirements to put the Foster Care Omnibus bill into action.
When it comes to doing the right thing by Virginia’s children, partisan stonewalling is out, and rolling up our sleeves to do the hard work of actual governing is our rallying call.
We owe it to our children and grandchildren and future generations to take care of the least, last, and lost among us and ensure that while we do what we must, we always do what is right.