The Virginia State Capitol. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Virginia’s foster care system is in dire straits. It is struggling to care for some of the state’s most vulnerable children, whose basic health and safety needs sometimes go unmet by local departments. And the state, which has oversight of the whole system, has taken a hands-off approach to supervision.

A report released in December by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission described the severe challenges facing social services, which Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, called, “devastating.”

But for many advocates working directly within foster care and children’s services, the report was merely an affirmation of what they’ve known for a long time: That the system is chronically underfunded, it lacks oversight and it needs serious reforms now.

“All the things that are in the JLARC report are things that we’ve known about for a long time,” said Valerie L’Herrou, an attorney with the Virginia Poverty Law Center. “It’s not like any of those things were a revelation to anyone.”

The report — combined with new laws at the federal level that will encourage Virginia to change how its child welfare programs operate — has sparked a bipartisan movement within the General Assembly spearheaded by Howell and Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania. Advocates and Department of Social Services officials think it could lead to significant investment in a system that has needed support for a long time.

But they’re hoping this is just the beginning of a long-lasting effort.

Reeves, the chair of the Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services committee, has submitted a far-reaching bill on foster care for which Howell, a ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, is carrying a budget amendment. During a press conference Tuesday, Reeves said the bill has the support of all 40 senators. Lawmakers have aslo created a new Foster Care Caucus, chaired by Del. Emily Brewer, R-Suffolk, and Sen. Monty Mason, D-Williamsburg, aimed at sustaining the reforming effort and focus on the needs of children within the foster care system.

“The majority of our folks who work in this arena do a phenomenal job,” Reeves said in an interview last week. “But I think what the JLARC report did was highlight deficiencies in the program and the agency itself.

“The legislation that we put together — I think it’s reasonable, I think it’s prudent, and I think it’s in a timely fashion,” he continued. “It’s due. And that’s why you’re seeing huge bipartisan support. This isn’t a Republican or Democrat issue, this is a human issue that has to do with our children.”

Is it enough? 

Though Reeves’s bill does not address every recommendation within the JLARC report, it does cover several of them, including: allowing the Commissioner of Social Services to assume control over a local Board of Social Services if the board fails to protect the children under its care; creating a foster care health and safety director position; and requiring the state to limit the number of cases assigned to each social worker. Howell has submitted a $3 million budget amendment to cover the costs.

Oversight, Reeves noted, is a major need. Families at risk of losing their children rarely have the means of paying for a lawyer to represent them, and they have to rely, instead, on the appeals process. But if there is limited oversight at the state level to ensure that local departments — which are autonomous — are following the appropriate guidelines, those families have little recourse.

Advocates, such as L’Herrou and Allison Gilbreath, a policy analyst with Voices for Virginia’s Children, say they’re hopeful that the proposed reforms stand a chance this year.

“The foster care omnibus bill has many changes that we’ve wanted for a long time, and so much bipartisan support,” Gilbreath said. “To me, that’s as hopeful as I can get.”

Officials with the state Department of Social Services have also expressed support for the lawmakers’ proposals. Carl Ayers, director of family services with the department, said he thinks the combined effort “is a wonderful first step.” But, he added, it has to be the first of multi-stage process if it’s going to create lasting change.

He said it’s sort of like making a down payment on a new house: It’s a necessary and meaningful start, but will still requirement significant investment.

“We didn’t get here overnight with our child welfare system, we’re not going to reform it in one session,” Ayers said. “We have to support our local agencies to get staff to do this really challenging and traumatizing job.”

The slew of bills that have been filed this session don’t address the major, systemic problems that DSS officials like Ayers and Commissioner Duke Storen have been pointing to: that the workforce is underpaid, leading to low retention and recruitment rates across nearly every local department, and that the department currently relies on a years-old training system that does not fully support a 21st-century workforce.

It takes two years to fully train a social worker in Virginia, meaning that many are working in the field before they’ve even completed their training.

But Reeves said he plans to champion a long-lasting reform effort, assuming he is re-elected to his office in November. The bill he’s presenting this year, he said, is meant to address critical issues that are directly impacting the care, custody and oversight of Virginia’s children right now.

“And then over the next probably two sessions, if I’m lucky enough to come back, we’ll address the rest of those issues,” he continued. “We’ve worked very hard to get the right bill. There’s going to be some tweaks, I’m sure, to this. There will be some localities that have concerns, and we’re going to try to address those. No one likes to have change, but this is definitely change that is needed.”

State Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax.

During the press conference, Howell said the JLARC report outlined problems she has been aware of for 30 years. She and Reeves (she called them the “odd couple”) looked at each after they read the report, she said, and immediately committed themselves to addressing the problems.

“When you take children from the families that God put them in, you have a huge moral responsibility to those children,” she said. “And frankly, for as long as I’ve been involved with foster care, we’ve been failing.”

A multi-faceted effort 

While Reeves and Howell have the most comprehensive bill, several lawmakers have put forward proposals this year to address other problems within the foster care system.

Some of those bills:

  • Del. Emily Brewer, R-Suffolk, has submitted a bill that would freeze the credit report and records of a child in foster care to protect them from identity theft.
  • After the state’s Commission on Youth recommended the change, Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, is sponsoring a budget amendment to make it easier for teens in foster care to get driver’s licenses.
  • Del. Jennifer Carroll-Foy, D-Stafford, has a bill that would require local departments to notify relatives about the possibility of becoming a foster home, which was a problem that JLARC identified in its report.

Del. Chris Hurst, D-Giles, also has a bill that is meant to improve oversight of local departments. It identifies a way to pay for a new office, dubbed the Office of the Children’s Ombudsman, which the General Assembly actually passed over a decade ago, but hasn’t funded the office.

State Del. Chris Hurst, D-Roanoke.

The idea for the bill stems from his time as a television news anchor, when he was talking with families about the challenges they faced with their local departments.

“Before I left I was in the process of gathering interviews with foster care parents who felt that there were some situations where local Departments of Social Services were acting with prejudice and making actions and decisions that weren’t with merit,” he said.

Once he started his career as a lawmaker, he turned his attention to making the Office of the Children’s Ombudsman a reality. Last year his bill died in committee because it didn’t include a way to pay for it. This year’s iteration identifies a funding source in 30 felonies and misdemeanors related to sex crimes against children. Under the bill, people convicted of those crimes would pay an additional $250 fee that would fund the position.

The ombudsman would be able to investigate claims and complaints regarding children’s services. That’s especially needed at DSS where, because Virginia has a locally-administered, state-supervised system, the buck stops at the local level when it comes to investigating incidents, Hurst said.

But the office would have a broader reach, as well, not just overseeing complaints related to DSS, but also agencies like the Department of Juvenile Justice and the Department of Education.

“I believe, fundamentally, that we need to have somebody independent of those agencies who can really be that objective third party to give a thorough evaluation of people’s claims and complaints,” he said.

“What they needed was a champion”

Foster care reform has been a long time coming, advocates agree.

Reeves was aware of problems within DSS well before the JLARC report because constituents in his district came forward asking for help. DSS, too, has been asking for help for a long time, he noted.

State Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania.

“I think what they needed was a champion to get behind them, and I’m glad I’m that champion,” he said.

He acknowledged that it’s probably not the norm that a Republican will step forward to take charge of a topic that is typically “deemed as a left-wing issue,” he said. His party is typically seen as focused on things like taxes or defending law enforcement.

“But I think you see those like myself, that have been in law enforcement, that are all about justice reform, that look at things not only from a humanitarian aspect, but from a fiscal aspect,” he said. “We’re wasting dollars and we’re not making gains? We’ve got a problem.”