Gov. Ralph Northam today ceremonially signed legislation to improve Virginia’s foster care system. Joined by a bipartisan group of legislators, government officials, and leaders from the business and faith communities, Northam also helped kick off Virginia Fosters, a statewide campaign that empowers Virginians to be the solution for children, families, and workers in the Commonwealth’s child welfare system.
“Every child in our Commonwealth deserves to grow up healthy, safe, and in a loving family that supports them through school, a career, and in following their dreams,” said Northam. “We have made tremendous strides in improving our foster care system with this legislation, but we also know that the challenges we have did not come about overnight and cannot be solved in one General Assembly Session or by government alone. Each one of us has a role to play in giving Virginia’s most vulnerable children an opportunity to grow and thrive.”
Senate Bill 1339, sponsored by Sen. Bryce Reeves, makes clear state and local authority for foster care services, placement, and removal decisions, improves the case review and oversight process, and creates a new state position to oversee foster care health and safety.
Senate Bill 1679, sponsored by Sen. Monty Mason, and House Bill 2014, sponsored by Delegate Chris Peace, aligns the Code of Virginia with the Family First Prevention Services Act of 2018, which provides prevention services for kids at risk of entering foster care services and their families.
Senate Bill 1720, sponsored by Sen. Monty Mason, and House Bill 2758, sponsored by Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy, requires local departments of social services to take all reasonable steps in a foster care placement to determine whether a child has any relatives who may be eligible to become a kinship foster parent, provide notice to those relatives, and explain to them the opportunities they may have to participate in placement and care of the child.
Senate Bill 1139, sponsored by Sen. Barbara Favola, and House Bill 1728, sponsored by Delegate David Reid, encourages post-adoption contact and communication with birth parents.
House Bill 2108, sponsored by Del. Richard Bell, establishes a dispute resolution process through which a foster parent may contest an alleged violation of regulations.
Senate Bill 1253, sponsored by Sen. Bryce Reeves, and House Bill 1730, sponsored by Delegate Emily Brewer, requires local departments of social services to request the placement of a security freeze on the credit report or record of any child who has been in foster care for at least six months.
“I could not be more proud to have this legislation signed into law today,” said Sen. Bryce Reeves. “We are putting our Commonwealth’s most vulnerable children first and raising the bar for other states to do the same.”
“When we take children from their parents, we have a responsibility to keep them safe, healthy, and with a brighter future,” said Sen. Janet Howell. “Too often, Virginia has failed these, our children. The problems with Virginia’s foster care system are largely fixable. We are determined to fix them. The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission staff provided us the impetus and guidance we need.”
“The Families First Prevention Services Act offers Virginia a chance to make historic reforms to help keep kids out of the foster care system,” said Del. Chris Peace. “I’m proud to be part of a bipartisan effort to ensure we are doing everything we can to protect some of our Commonwealth’s most vulnerable children.”
“The report provided to us on the condition of our foster care system was sobering, and the Virginia legislature tackled the problems listed with the help of members from across the state and across the aisle,” said Sen. Monty Mason. “For the first time ever we have dollars to put toward preventative services to keep families together. We have a plan to create better outcomes for children who enter the foster care system. While the foster care system always needs improvement, we have made incredible strides with the legislation that is being signed into law today.”
“As a foster mother for nearly a decade, I have seen children’s lives transformed by having a safe, nurturing home,” said Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy. “My bill promotes kinship foster care which enables relatives to safely care for foster children. Kinship foster care maintains important family connections, minimizes trauma, improves behavioral and mental health outcomes, and increases permanency for abused and neglected children.”
“As someone who grew up in foster care at the United Methodists Children’s Home in Richmond, I am committed to reforming this system for the better,” said Del. David Reid. “The work of the 2019 session was just the beginning of our effort to help those children in Virginia who need us most.”
“Starting July 1, local departments of social services will be required to notify the appropriate community service boards (CSBs) when a child in the foster care system has a developmental disability,” said Sen. Barbara Favola. “This notification will enable the CSB to screen the child for placement on the statewide developmental disability waiver list in enough advance time to ensure a smooth transition from the foster care system. I am pleased that this requirement will ease the transition for children in foster care who need developmental disability waiver placements upon leaving the system.”
“Children placed in foster care are among the most vulnerable in our communities,” said Del. Richard ‘Dickie’ Bell. “These children need stable and loving environments and thousands of foster parents open their homes each year and provide just that. House Bill 2108 ensures that there is a mechanism for foster parents to add their voice to ongoing conversations about the safety and well-being of these children and creates a more transparent process centered around communication and collaboration of all parties with the child’s needs at the forefront.”
“Children in foster care are disproportionately more vulnerable to having their identity stolen and their credit history damaged,” said Del. Emily Brewer. “House Bill 1730, my foster care credit freeze measure, will provide identity theft protections for children currently in foster care and also ensure those aging out of foster care start their future without the fear of financial peril.”
Virginia Fosters coordinates leaders in the government, faith, non-profit, business and creative communities at the “grass tops” level and engages Virginians from all walks of life at the grassroots level to address the challenges inherent in the child welfare system. Not everyone can foster or adopt, but everyone can do something to be the solution.
“The Virginia Fosters campaign offers us an opportunity to come together, no matter where we live, or what we do, to actively be part of the solution for kids in need of loving, supportive, and stable homes,” said Secretary of Health and Human Resources Daniel Carey, M.D. “Whether it be providing wrap-around support for foster families, supporting local social workers, or helping young adults who have recently aged out of the system, there are meaningful ways for us all to be involved, even if we are unable to become a foster parent ourselves.”
Virginia Fosters is based in part on a successful model run in Virginia in 2013 and in Colorado starting in 2005, focused mostly on recruiting adoptive families. That work was enhanced and accelerated in Oklahoma and Tennessee in recent years, resulting in significant increases in the number of foster families recruited in those states.
According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, the number of children in foster care across our nation has continued to rise—from 396,000 in September 2012 to 443,000 in September 2016. On average, nearly 2,700 children enter Virginia’s foster care system each year. Thirty-eight percent of these children are teenagers and 60 percent are siblings. As the number of children entering care continues to rise, a growing demand is created for foster parents. When a relative cannot be identified, foster parents provide temporary placement until the child can be successfully reunified or permanency is achieved. Nationally, relatives care for 32 percent of children in foster care. However, in Virginia, less than 10 percent children are placed in relative foster homes.
Most often, children enter care having experienced multiple, complex problems within their home environment. Ensuring a safe, stable, and supportive environment as these children navigate through temporary displacement is critical to their health and well-being and is a priority of the child welfare system.
“As human service professionals, children are among those we strive hardest to protect. We need the help of relatives and foster parents in facilitating the supports children need as they struggle to overcome adverse situations,” said Virginia Department of Social Services Commissioner Duke Storen. “These are Virginia’s children, and they deserve our best efforts. Working together, we can help better support the success of the child, parent, and their family as a whole.”
For more information on the Virginia Fosters campaign, visit virginiafosters.org.