WHILE coverage of the Virginia General Assembly has largely focused on legislative battles between Republicans and Democrats, and in the case of the still unresolved issue of Medicaid expansion between House and Senate Republicans, some noteworthy bills have passed with large bipartisan majorities.
One such bill, sponsored by Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico—which was unanimously passed by both the House and Senate and is currently awaiting Gov. Ralph Northam’s signature—provides financial support for relatives who take in children removed from their homes because of severe abuse or neglect.
SB 636 establishes a kinship guardianship assistance program “to facilitate child placements with relatives and ensure permanency for children for whom adoption or being returned home are not appropriate permanency options.” Children have to be eligible for foster care, and those over the age of 14 must be consulted and demonstrate “a strong attachment” to the prospective kindship guardian who, in turn, would commit to their permanent care.
The bill requires the Board of Social Services to establish eligibility criteria. Costs could not exceed the amount that the state would have spent on foster care placement.
Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children of Central Virginia, a nonprofit group that advocates for mistreated children, supports the measure. “Placing children with safe, appropriate relatives is THE best solution to averting a child from coming into foster care, and is the very best solution for getting them out of care when they cannot return home,” CASA noted. “Unfortunately, many of our biological families do not come from means, and though they willingly step forward to take on a new sibling group, this can cause severe financial struggles, and they may not fully understand how to access the services children of trauma need.”
In its latest Child Maltreatment Report to Congress released on Feb. 1, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families reported that an estimated 1,750 children—including 45 in Virginia—died from child abuse or neglect nationwide in fiscal 2016, the last year for which data is available. That’s 100 times the number of children killed last month in the Parkland, Fla., school shooting.
Although removal from home is sometimes necessary, it is always traumatic for the child. But placing abused or neglected children with strangers in foster care further traumatizes them by cutting them off from siblings and extended family members.
According to the federal report, 5,941 minors in Virginia were reported victims of child abuse in 2016. Of those, 1,842 suffered physical abuse and 697 were victims of sexual abuse. However, mirroring national statistics, a large majority of removal cases involved neglect (3,766), which Matthew Fraidin, associate professor at the University of the District of Columbia’s David A. Clarke Law School, has called “poverty by another name.”
Faces of Virginia Families: Foster, Adoption and Kinship Association, which has a multi-year contract with the Virginia Department of Social Services, says that more than 56,000 children in Virginia are already being raised by relatives other than their birth parents. But people who might want to provide a permanent home for a niece, nephew or grandchild sometimes don’t offer because they lack the financial resources to raise a child.
A number of studies have shown that children in foster care have worse outcomes than comparably mistreated children who were left in their own homes. “Only one in five could be said to be doing well as a young adult—in other words, foster care churns out walking wounded four times out of five, and the mass of evidence shows that simply in terms of physical safety, real family preservation programs have a far better track record than foster care,” according to the Alexandria-based National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.
And although kinship placements are “almost always the least harmful form of foster care, the bad news is that it’s still a form of foster care,” warned NCCPR executive director Richard Wexler.
Fraidin underscored the point in a 2012 paper published in the Georgetown Journal of Poverty Law and Policy: “The nuclear secret of child welfare is that most of the children in foster care should not be there. Most of the children in foster care are harmed more than they are helped by being taken from their families and by being kept in foster care for too long,” he wrote.
Money that would otherwise be spent placing abused or neglected children in foster care is better spent helping them remain at home. But when that’s not possible, placing them with kinfolk is the least bad option.