ACCORDING to an annual

report on foster care by the

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the number of foster children nationwide decreased last year for the first time since 2012. A total of 437,283 U.S. children were in foster care in 2018, down from 441,071 in 2017. And a record 63,123 children were adopted out of the child welfare system last year, compared with 59,491 in 2017.

However, despite the nationwide decrease, foster care placements increased in Virginia.

According to statistics released by the Virginia Department of Social Services in September, there are currently 5,517 children in foster care throughout the commonwealth, compared with 5,329 at the same time last year, with the largest number (1,166) between the ages of 16 and 18. Included in that total are 17 foster children in Caroline County, 39 in Culpeper, 12 in King George, 47 in Fredericksburg, 120 in Spotsylvania, and 45 in Stafford.

Federal officials credit the increase of preventive programs and those designed to support families in crisis in order to keep children in their homes for the lower foster care placements. According to the HHS statistics, 98 percent of children in the foster care system were removed due to neglect (62 percent) or parental drug abuse (36 percent). Nearly half of children in the child welfare system are white (47 percent), followed by African American (21 percent) and Hispanic (20 percent).

There are many heroic foster parents whose love and dedication have provided a lifeline for abused and neglected youngsters. But the fact remains that removing a child from home and placing him or her with strangers, although sometimes necessary, is traumatic. And childhood trauma is associated with negative effects on emotional health and behavior that can last a lifetime.

If child welfare is the goal, keeping as many children out of the foster system as humanly possible, while making sure that the family issues that precipitated the crisis are resolved, should be the state’s top priority.

In March, the General Assembly passed a law requiring child welfare agencies to “take all reasonable steps to provide notice to relatives of their potential eligibility to become a kinship foster parent.” This has enabled relatives of at-risk children to receive all the services that are available to unrelated foster parents, including “payment at the full foster care rate for the care of the child.”

The change in the Virginia Code also allows local authorities to waive certain standards for foster homes that are not safety related on a case-by-case basis.

If a child has to be removed from home due to abuse or neglect, kinship care is the least damaging alternative, as it enables the child to maintain close emotional ties with siblings and extended family members. Before the change in the law, blood relations who otherwise would have taken in abused or neglected grandchildren, nieces, nephews or cousins were often prevented from doing so due to the financial strain involved. Providing them with the resources available to other foster parents should make this decision much easier to make.

These kids did not deserve to have their lives upended by adults who, for whatever reasons, failed to provide them with the basic necessities, both physical and emotional, they need to grow up as healthy and productive citizens.

The troubling increase in the number of foster children in Virginia, despite the downward national trend, is a step in the wrong direction.

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