Virginia’s foster care system is failing to meet the basic health and safety needs of the children under its care, according to state auditors, who released a scathing report Monday that found 98 cases in which basic safety protocols weren’t met.

In one, a child was placed in a home for nearly three weeks even though no background check had been run on the parent.

“Problematic cases were not isolated to one or two departments — they were spread across 34 departments,” said Drew Dickinson, who led the review on behalf of the General Assembly’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee, which was tasked with studying the state’s foster care system last year.

Overall, the report faulted limited oversight of a far-flung system of 120 local departments of social services, which are each independently responsible for the services they provide. The state, meanwhile, has limited power to intervene when things go wrong.

The state historically “has not effectively supervised the foster care system and it has not developed a reliable means to identify its resultant problems,” Dickinson said.

Among other failures, the report found 19 percent of children in foster care did not receive all their required monthly visits from caseworkers between April 2017 and March 2018, and 24 children were not visited at all. Of children ages 5 and younger, 15 percent did not receive all their required monthly visits.

It is especially important that young children receive face-to-face visits with their caseworkers, Dickinson noted, as they are less likely than older children to speak up if something is wrong.

There is also evidence that many children aren’t receiving basic physical, dental and mental health care. Only 10 percent of a sample of 492 foster care children in 2017 had received the recommended immunizations and 45 percent had no medical record of immunizations at any time in their life.

A 2017 federal review found that local departments did not adequately assess the mental and behavioral health needs of nine out of 34 sample foster care cases — even though “a significant proportion of children in foster care in Virginia have clinical levels of mental or behavioral health needs,” according to the report.

And even though placing children with families is considered a widely-held best practice, local departments don’t do enough to place children in foster care with relatives. Only 6 percent of Virginia’s foster care children were placed with relatives in 2016, compared to 32 percent nationwide.

The state has no plans to address the shortage of foster parents, which has persisted since at least 1998, Dickinson added. It doesn’t even have a basic list of all foster parents in Virginia.

These lapses within local departments are aggravated by retention, recruitment and training problems at every level of Virginia’s system.

The report noted that 15 percent of Virginia’s foster care caseworkers carry caseloads of more than 15 children at a time, “higher than the widely accepted caseload standard of 12 to 15 children per caseworker.”

The lawmakers who sit on the committee said they were disturbed by the findings.

“This is an absolutely devastating report,” said state Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax. “These are children we’ve taken from their families. They’re now our children. We have to give them the very best we can and obviously that’s not happening.”

Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, agreed: “This is a devastating report. … It’s very, very unfortunate for these children who are in the system.”

The review concludes with 34 recommendations that range from requiring caseworkers to search for relatives every year a child is in foster care to amending the code to make it clearer when the state is within its authority to intervene at the local level.

Virginia Department of Social Services Commissioner Duke Storen said he agreed with the auditor’s findings.

“We have got a lot of things already under way because we’ve recognized these problems,” he said. “The fact is, we’ve got a retention problem, we’ve got a recruitment problem and we’ve got a training problem.”

He said the department has studied the issues internally and is considering salary increase for caseworkers. He said they’ve also been working to increase adoptions and are about to roll out a program to recruit additional foster parents.

On the local oversight front, he said that while his predecessors were reluctant to intervene at the local level, “I’m prepared to do that,” but may need the General Assembly to “give me the authority to intervene in a much more active way.”

In a joint statement, Voices for Virginia’s Children, an advocacy group, and the Virginia Poverty Law Center stated that the report shows that local departments “are doing a poor job of ensuring that safety and well-being of the children it serves.”

Virginia remains near the bottom — 49th — in state rankings based on the number of youth who age out of foster care without a permanent home or family connection. That happens to about 500 youth every year in Virginia.

“The key issue here is that for children who do enter foster care, it becomes extremely difficult for them to exit,” the groups said.

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Ned Oliver
Ned, a Lexington native, has a decade’s worth of experience in journalism, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He also has the awards to show for it, including taking a pair of first-place honors at the Virginia Press Association awards earlier this year for investigative reporting and feature writing. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass.
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.