By Caitlin Morris of Capital News Service
RICHMOND — Only 7% of Virginia’s foster children are placed with relatives, according to a new study — well below the national average of 32%.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation tracked changes in foster care in each state from 2007 to 2017. For Virginia, the data snapshot contained some good news: There were fewer children in foster care, and fewer foster children were placed in group homes.
But many experts say that ideally, foster children should be placed with relatives — and on that measure, Virginia did not make any progress over the 10 years.
“We want for children to have a family that is their family forever — whether it’s their family of origin or if their foster family turns into an adoptive home,” said Allison Gilbreath, a policy analyst at Voices for Virginia’s Children, a nonprofit advocacy program.
Over the 10-year period, Virginia was successful in decreasing the percentage of foster children in group homes from 23% to 17%. That means more children have been fostered in family settings — but just not with their own relatives. The data also shows that older youth are more likely to be in group homes.
Virginia was also successful in reducing the number of children entering foster care. In 2007, there were 7,665, compared with 4,795 in 2017.
“While we have reduced the number of children overall in foster care, black children in particular continue to be overrepresented both in family-based settings, but also particularly in group homes,” Gilbreath said. “We really need to spend some time and energy in the state and figure out what we can do that will specifically get at the racial inequities in the foster care system.”
This year’s Virginia General Assembly passed SB 1339 to bring Virginia in compliance with federal foster care regulations, including the federal Family First Prevention Services Act enacted in 2018. The act encourages states to keep children in family-based settings by redirecting federal funds to support services for at-risk children and their caregivers.
Virginia’s new law also aims to increase the number of children placed with family members by notifying relatives when a child enters foster care.
Voices for Virginia’s Children joined the Annie E. Casey Foundation in calling on child welfare systems to shift resources from group placements to family settings.
“They feel more loved and protected, and it’s a more normal experience for that child,” Gilbreath said. “But also, they’re more likely to achieve permanency that way, and that’s what we really want for kids.”
The organizations contend that the support system for other foster children and caregivers should also be available to relatives who take in children. This includes financial support and access to mental health support. Often, family members take in a child through what is known as kinship diversion, meaning they take in a child without using the foster system and don’t receive the same support as caregivers in the foster program.
The children’s advocacy groups also called for expansion of kinship navigator programs. These programs aim to help relative caregivers navigate the complex child welfare system. Under the Family First Prevention Services Act, additional federal funds have been made available for kinship navigator programs.
“Virginia has already started to take advantage of these funds but could adopt the programs statewide,” Voices for Virginia’s Children stated in a press release.
The organization and the Annie E. Casey Foundation also asked for increased access to services that would help stabilize families. By aligning legislation with the Family First Prevention Services Act, funds will be accessible for family support services to prevent at-risk children from entering the foster system.
“It’s going to provide the first-ever opportunity to have money used to prevent entry into foster care,” Gilbreath said. This funding will go toward programs that offer mental health support for the child and the caregivers, substance abuse treatment and in-home training in parenting skills for the family.
“If we were able to step in and provide that family support — we’d be able to make that family successful,” Gilbreath said.