Gov. Ralph Northam shares the stage with Carlos Johnson, who aged out of the state's foster care system, during the Virginia Fosters event at U-Turn Sports Academy in Richmond on Wednesday. (Katie O'Connor/Virginia Mercury)

Carlos Johnson knows better than most how often the foster care system is overlooked in Virginia. But he makes an important distinction: those kids aren’t forgotten, he said.

“You have to know about something before you forget about it,” said Johnson, who spent four years in the foster care system until he aged out when he turned 18. “Too often, we’re just invisible.”

During an event on Wednesday that was well attended by lawmakers and child welfare advocates alike, the Virginia Fosters campaign launched. An effort to drastically increase the number of foster care families in Virginia, the campaign is aimed at coordinating grassroots organization across the state. Virginia’s Kids Belong, a nonprofit group with the same goal, describes itself as the “catalyst private partner.”

“I’ve got to be honest, this is bittersweet for me,” Johnson said. “If this event had been held 10 years ago, I have no doubt a lot of youth in foster care would be a lot better off — including me.”

At about 500 youth a year, Virginia has one of the worst rates in the country of children aging out of its foster care system without a permanent family.

Gov. Ralph Northam was in attendance, as were numerous state senators and delegates, and he signed several bills aimed at reforming the foster care system. The bills will:

  • Institute numerous changes to the foster care system, including adding new positions and limiting social workers’ caseloads.
  • Align Virginia with the federal Family First Prevention and Services Act of 2018, which is meant to focus on prevention services to stop kids from winding up in foster care in the first place.
  • Require local departments to alert relatives of children who are entering foster care and explain their opportunities to become a kinship foster family.
  • Encourage post-adoption contact and communication with birth parents.
  • Establish a dispute resolution process so foster parents may contest an alleged violation of regulations.
  • Allow local departments to place a security freeze on a foster child’s credit report to prevent identity theft.

“While we’ve made tremendous strides during this session, we know the challenges we have did not come about overnight and cannot be solved in one General Assembly session,” Northam said. “My team and I are committed to developing a strategic plan for continued investment and reform over the next several years.”

During the event, Northam and legislators referenced the Joint Legislative and Audit Review Commission report released in December, which highlighted several deficiencies within the foster care system.

One of the problems JLARC referenced was a lack of foster care families. Seventy-nine percent of local department staff who responded to the JLARC survey identified a shortage of foster families in their localities.

The Virginia Fosters campaign is pushing to change that, said Janet Kelly, president of Virginia’s Kids Belong. The group, which is an affiliate of the nationwide organization America’s Kids Belong, has run similar campaigns in two other states: Oklahoma and Tennessee. There, she said, they successfully increased the number of foster families by more than 40 percent.

The idea, Kelly explained, is to connect government, faith, business and nonprofit groups to help support “children, families and workers in Virginia’s child welfare system.” The hope is to accomplish that through both grassroots efforts like community organizing and a “grass-tops” push like a government-led awareness campaign and legislative changes.

Virginia’s Kids Belong has been operating in the state for about a year and has so far worked in about 25 localities, said Kelly, who also served as secretary of the commonwealth under former Gov. Bob McDonnell.

The nonprofit organization has raised almost $200,000 from private businesses like Bank of America and CGI.

“There’s something about these kids that draws people to them and keeps them wanting to help,” Kelly said. “Once people find out there are children right here in their own backyard who need help, I know that they’ll step up.”