State commission recommends reimbursement for foster families to help teens get driver’s licenses, more training for child-abuse investigators

By: - November 21, 2018 6:08 am

(Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

Virginia’s Commission on Youth adopted recommendations Tuesday aimed at reducing existing barriers for teenagers in the foster care system seeking a driver’s license and increasing training for social services workers, particularly in dealing with child abuse allegations against teachers.

The recommendations ranged from legislative proposals for the upcoming General Assembly session to letters addressed to various state agencies encouraging policies and practices.

The commission, which is made up of lawmakers and citizen members, agreed to recommend legislation that would allow foster families to be reimbursed for the increased costs associated with adding a foster teen to their car insurance policies.

Very few foster teens get their licenses, advocacy groups report, which can severely limit their ability to find jobs or go to school, especially if they live in a region without a strong public transportation network.

One of the most substantial barriers has been car insurance. Foster families cannot always afford to add a teen driver to their policies.

“Getting a driver’s license is a very important part of transitioning to adulthood and having a driver’s license would enable foster youths to potentially be able to access more educational opportunities or employment opportunities,” said Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, the commission’s chair.

Sen. Charles Carrico, R-Grayson, was the only commission member to vote against the policy option. He argued that many families cannot afford to add their own children to their insurance policies.

On Tuesday the commission also addressed some concerns around child abuse and neglect allegations against teachers.

When investigating a case of alleged child abuse or neglect against a school employee, child protective services workers in Virginia have a higher standard of proof in determining if the allegation is founded.

School advocates argue that a higher standard is necessary to protect teachers and other school employees from allegations leveled against them from angry students who may allege child abuse when a teacher was simply doing his or her job, like breaking up two students fighting.

But the higher standard has led to some confusion for Department of Social Services workers, particularly around cases being overturned by hearing officers in the appeals process.

The commission voted to recommend in a letter that the department increase training requirements for hearing officers and to clarify the confusion around documentation.

One potential recommendation would have been to exempt sexual abuse complaints from the higher standard. The Department of Education supported that option, but the Virginia Education Association strongly opposed it.

Dena Rosenkrantz, staff attorney with the association, explained that there are cases in which a school employee’s responsibilities involve making contact with a student — such as helping with toileting or providing physical guidance during music instruction. Removing the higher standard may make those teachers more vulnerable to unfounded accusations, she said.

Favola agreed with the association, but Del. Mark Keam, D-Fairfax, argued that the proposed language is clear in that it applies to “any act of sexual exploitation or any sexual act upon a child in violation of the law.”

“If you violate that law, you don’t deserve a second chance,” he said.

The commission didn’t make any final decision on the topic, though, and Favola pointed that not everybody thinks the proposed language is clear.

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Katie O'Connor
Katie O'Connor

Katie, a Manassas native, has covered health care, commercial real estate, law, agriculture and tourism for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Richmond BizSense and the Northern Virginia Daily. Last year, she was named an Association of Health Care Journalists Regional Health Journalism Fellow, a program to aid journalists in making national health stories local and using data in their reporting. She is a graduate of the College of William and Mary, where she was executive editor of The Flat Hat, the college paper, and editor-in-chief of The Gallery, the college’s literary magazine.