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Every year, between 100,000 and 300,000 children nationwide are diverted from the foster care system to live with relatives, according to a new report from the national research group Child Trends that answers some — though not all — questions around the practice.

Diversion occurs when child protective services has gotten involved with a family and the parent or social worker identifies a relative the child can live with as an alternative to foster care.

The practice varies widely between Virginia’s local departments of social services, with some using it commonly and others not at all. But there is no regular tracking statewide of the practice, so language in the 2016 budget ordered some data collection between July 2016 and December 2018.

Child Trends used that data from Virginia and other states to craft its report on the practice of diversion, and it concluded what many involved in Virginia’s child welfare system already knew: There isn’t enough information, including how many children are involved.

“To understand how children are faring in these arrangements, and whether their outcomes are better or worse than those of children formally removed to kin caregivers, child welfare agencies will need to collect child- and family-level information,” the report concludes.

“My greatest conclusion is: We need more information,” said Allison Gilbreath, policy analyst with Voices for Virginia’s Children. “Generally speaking, this said, ‘Hey, you need a lot more data to be able to show comparisons and really show if kids are better off.’”

Carl Ayers, director of the Division of Family Services with the state Department of Social Services, said he was disappointed the report didn’t include any concrete recommendations on evidence-based ways to practice diversion. Virginia doesn’t have any guidelines for its localities, so each of the 120 local departments conduct diversion differently.

In 2016 the state held a work group to develop guidance, but it essentially couldn’t reach a consensus, Ayers said. Child welfare professionals and advocates are often split on diversion. Some see it as a great way to avoid the inherent trauma children experience when they’re separated from their families. Others view it as too unstructured without ensuring that the child is safe or that the parent has a clear road to reunification.

“Unfortunately, I’m not sure this gets us any closer to bridging that gap between these two groups,” Ayers said. “As a state we have to make a decision on where to go forward with this practice.”

What the data shows

The report offers a glimpse into how diversion is practiced and demographics of the children involved. But in many cases the data highlighted the variability of diversion practice across localities: some jurisdictions were more likely to divert children who were school age, between 6 and 11, than younger children, while other agencies were took an opposite approach.

One takeaway for Ayers was that nothing in the data suggested that diverting children in the manner Virginia does places them at risk.

“If you’re diverting a child away from foster care, you’re saying they’re unsafe in the home they were in,” he said. “There’s nothing that says they are any less safe in the diversion practice than they were in foster care.”

Agencies generally performed criminal and child abuse/neglect background checks on the relatives providing care, and they often held family meetings with the diversion families, which generally encourage partnership and empowers the family, the report states.

It also shows that most diversion placements generally last only about three months or less, but Child Trends points out that there “are significant limitations with the dataset, and that estimates exclude cases that remained open at the end of the time period for which we had data.”

The report does not identify Virginia specifically, though Ayers provided more information on the state’s numbers. Of the 33 localities that participated in the data collection, two did not divert any children. Most counties that provided information were from the western part of the state, though others like Fairfax and Prince William counties participated as well.

In the 18-month period, Pulaski County diverted the most children of the participating localities: 281. Washington County was the next closest with 153 diversions. Counties in the northern part of the state, like Fairfax and Prince William, diverted 66 and 85 children, respectively.

Ayers attributed the high use of diversion in some parts of the state to substance use, which has hit the child welfare system hard. Almost half of the children were diverted due to parental substance use.

Next steps

Valerie L’Herrou, an attorney with the Virginia Poverty Law Center, said the report eases some of her concerns about diversion because it showed that background checks and family meetings were taking place most of the time.

If that is the case in all diversion cases, she said it could be a useful tool for situations when a child welfare worker has identified concerns with a family that can be remedied without removing the child.

“The problem is when you use it indiscriminately to address both short-term and long-term problems, and when we don’t put protections in place for the child and for the birth parents,” she said.

In encouraging localities to collect more data on the children who are diverted, Child Trends developed a tool that helps them estimate how many children are diverted.

But beyond shining some light on the practice and how it is used, the report still left many questions unanswered, reinforcing the need for the state to develop some kind of guidance for Virginia’s local departments of social services.

“I firmly believe this is something we have to tackle as a system,” Ayers said. “We have to come up with a consistent guidance so that each of the families are treated in a similar fashion across each of the 120 local departments.”