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Opinion/Editorial: Pandemic hampers foster care

Opinion/Editorial: Pandemic hampers foster care

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Virginia’s foster care system has been criticized for a series of failures over the past several years, an issue we’ve followed in this space.

Now, a year of pandemic difficulties has exacerbated those problems.

In late 2018, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission issued a report detailing missteps by the Virginia Department of Social Services in its foster care program.

Among other problems, overburdened social workers weren’t visiting children often enough to check on them adequately; weren’t ensuring they got the health services they needed; weren’t working to find them permanent homes or reunite them with families, the report said.

Virginia also was placing a mere 7% of children with family members, according to another report, this one by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has cited advantages to this “kinship care.” When a child can be placed with a relative, familiarity can improve the child’s sense of stability and safety. Kinship care also allows children to be raised in a way that maintains family and cultural traditions.

But Virginia ranks at the bottom in the country for kinship care, The Progress reports.

Virginia also is 50th in the nation in its ability to find foster placement for older children, who lose eligibility for care at age 18.

If a youth has not been able to experience a stable family situation before “aging out” of the system, when will he or she ever have the chance to learn the social and emotional skills needed to succeed at life?

It’s also important to have a foster family in place as the young person transitions into adulthood at age 18. Even if the foster placement is brief, at least there is a foster parent on the scene who might help him or her negotiate this critical life stage.

Following the 2018 report, the General Assembly in 2019 adopted several reforms, including beefing up funding to pay for added Health and Human Services staff.

But those reforms hardly had time to take hold before the pandemic hit, stalling progress. More fundamentally, it interrupted already established efforts for recruiting foster parents.

“COVID has impacted our ability to reach out to families … and work with interested individuals and families wanting to learn more about foster care,” said Hope Robinson, director of foster care and independent living programs at DePaul Community Resources, a Central Virginia nonprofit.

Locally, there are too few foster parents available to meet the needs of all the children needing care. That means local children needing to go into foster homes often are relocated outside the area.

It is most difficult to find placement for children of color and for adolescents. Both children of color who could not be placed and teens who have aged out of the system without care have higher incidences of homelessness, Robinson said.

The legislature adopted additional reforms this year, including a bill to provide stipends for extended family members taking in children. Previously, such aid was available only to family members who went through a full and formal approval process for becoming foster parents.

Another new law also aims to make kinship care payments easier, and to give older children more involvement in their care plans.

These reforms should alleviate some of the problems within the foster care system itself, and could encourage more family members to consider kinship care.

But only the alleviation of the pandemic will allow social workers to launch robust education, recruitment and placement services.

Foster care is all about relationships — most critically foster parent to child, but also foster parent to state and nonprofit agency staff from whom they can receive support.

Relationships are difficult to build when communication and contact are blocked by a global pandemic.

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