Janet Kelly, president of Virginia's Kids Belong, talks to one of her employees at her office in Richmond. The organization is working to improve Virginia's foster care system. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

If someone had asked Janet Kelly 10 years ago what she would be doing now, crisscrossing Virginia to bolster the state’s struggling foster care system wouldn’t have been on the horizon.

As the president of Virginia’s Kids Belong, Kelly, the former secretary of the commonwealth in Gov. Bob McDonnell’s administration, spends her days in meeting after meeting with faith leaders, government workers, elected officials and others, leaning on her experience in state government to try to win more support for foster families, children who have aged out of the system, their birth families and social workers.

“I can’t let go of it,” she said. “I live it every day. I see the stakes every day.”

Kelly fell into her work unintentionally. She had a chance encounter with a woman who was lost and pregnant in a Richmond-area shopping center in 2010. They became friends and eventually Kelly and her husband adopted the woman’s son. Their arrangement is often referred to as fictive kinship care, meaning they aren’t blood related but have a strong relationship with the birth mother.

Virginia’s Kids Belong has been working in about a dozen localities in Virginia so far, ranging from southwest to northern Virginia. Kelly describes the organization as a connector. Almost everyone wants to help kids, she said, but not everyone understands how. Her organization shows them the way, by connecting different parts of the community with their department of social services to meet the needs of families in their area.

“It’s a grind,” she said. “It’s meetings and meetings and meetings and at the end of every meeting I am just asking: ‘What can you do to help kids?’”

Janet Kelly, former secretary of the commonwealth and president of Virginia’s Kids Belong, which seeks to bolster Virginia’s foster care system in every locality, talks to Julie Gassaway, the organization’s director of programs and operations. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Virginia Fosters

Virginia’s Kids Belong describes itself as the “catalyst partner” for the Virginia Fosters campaign, a statewide initiative with the immediate goal of adding 1,000 new foster families to Virginia by July 2020.

Earlier this month, the state hired Leslie Frazier, who already worked in Gov. Ralph Northam’s office on issues involving veterans, as the campaign director for Virginia Fosters. Though she is officially employed by the Department of Social Services, she still works out of Northam’s office.

“It gives the ability for the campaign to have that high-level visibility,” Frazier said, adding that she wants the campaign to last in perpetuity, and not be something that disappears after just a few years.

“The Virginia Fosters campaign is really a component of a much larger, comprehensive effort around foster care reform in Virginia,” said Gena Boyle Berger, Virginia’s deputy secretary of health and human resources. “We have a lot of system redesign going on, and this is just one of the really complex, but important, pieces of that puzzle.”

The timing around the campaign and Virginia’s Kids Belong ramping up its work has been made all the more relevant by the effort within the Department of Social Services to implement the Family First Prevention Services Act. The federal act allows states to, for the first time, put significant funds toward prevention services for families, rather than just responding when a situation has deteriorated and a child needs to enter foster care.

The push also coincides with a biting report on Virginia’s foster care system released by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission in December. In many ways, the report helped fuel the reform effort. Among many problems the report identified, it found that Virginia’s system has a severe lack of foster parents, with 79 percent of local department staff reporting a shortage of foster families in their localities. They especially have trouble finding families for kids with disabilities, large sibling groups and teens.

The state also one of the worst rates of children aging out of foster care without a permanent connection, a circumstance that positions them for a host of negative outcomes.

At the launch event for Virginia Fosters in March, an array of state politicians threw their support behind improving foster care. Some had already carried legislation during this year’s General Assembly session, largely spurred by the JLARC report. But many others were there because Kelly had told them about the problem herself. 

“That event was a year’s worth of work,” Kelly said. “More than that — November 2017 to March. So, almost 18 months. It’s as if you’re buried in the dark, like a seed, and the work all of a sudden sprouts to life. If you don’t realize the point, you can get really discouraged in the dark.”

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 March 27, 2019. (Katie O’Connor/Virginia Mercury)

Making foster care a community issue

Virginia’s Kids Belong is an offshoot of another organization that Kelly and her husband, Ryan, also helped get off the ground in 2015: America’s Kids Belong, which launched affiliate groups to increase the number of foster families in both Oklahoma and Tennessee. Both those campaigns, Kelly said, have increased the number of foster families by more than 40 percent.

Virginia requires a slightly different approach, though. It is one of just nine states that are run as state-supervised, locally administered systems. Whereas in Oklahoma and Tennessee, big, statewide campaigns were sufficient, Virginia’s Kids Belong — which has three employees, two full-time and one part-time, and several interns— has to essentially run campaigns in each of the 120 local departments of social services.

That means working with each local department to figure out what their specific needs are and how their foster families might be struggling, then partnering with the local faith, business and creative communities in each locality to meet those needs, which can range from not having the ability to recruit foster parents to not being able to give those parents the support they need. It also means it might take longer to achieve the same results that Oklahoma and Tennessee have seen.

“But I think this approach is good, anyway,” Kelly said. “It’s a lot more work, but it’s going to create more sustainable, relationship-based changes.”

The first locality that Virginia’s Kids Belong worked with closely was Henrico County. There, the organization has done what it hopes to replicate across the state.

“We may have always realized it — but we didn’t know it was an issue until a solution was offered to us — but we didn’t realize that we couldn’t do it alone,” said Gretchen Brown, division manager of the county’s child welfare programs.

Virginia’s Kids Belong has gotten several churches in the community together to hold foster parent nights out. People can help support those events in any number of ways, like donating time to entertain the foster kids, or donating gift cards so their foster parents can go to dinner or a movie without the kids.

It worked with volunteer videographers to do videos of kids available for fostering or adoption, and worked with a local church to organize a pre-orientation event for prospective foster parents. Brown said that typically, at the department’s formal, monthly orientation, four or five prospective parents attend. After the pre-orientation event the church held, 25 people attended.

“What Virginia’s Kids Belong has done is say there’s really no one way to solve this crisis, and every contribution that can be made, either through time or finances or a commitment of bringing children into your home, anything is significant to solving the crisis, and that’s something we have struggled with on our own,” Brown said.

The churches have also started supporting social workers through simple gestures like bringing them lunch, Brown said. But the overall effort might have an even bigger impact by making life easier for workers so they stay longer — addressing a larger problem of recruitment and retention within social services.

“They provide that relief and support for staff that will make people stay longer because they understand they’re not in it by themselves,” Brown said. “There’s a whole community committed to solving the problem.”

Janet Kelly is a former secretary of the commonwealth and president of Virginia’s Kids Belong. She started the organization to bolster Virginia’s foster care system in every locality. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Involving the business world

Working with faith communities comes naturally in the overarching effort to help kids, Kelly said, though it’s not restricted to that sphere.

“There is a disconnect between the child welfare system and change agents in the community,” she said. “Virginia’s Kids Belong exists, in part, to bridge that disconnect.”

Involving businesses is another critical side of the work, she said.

“We ask them to open up their social capital and calendar to kids who aged out of foster care,” she said. “It’s really open to any community leader who just has about an hour a week to invite a kid into their lives. Lots of these kids haven’t had anyone who hasn’t been paid to be in their lives.

“What we really hope to see over time — and hopefully not that much time — is this awareness of the full spectrum of needs in a foster care system.”

The philosophy around both Virginia’s Kids Belong and the Virginia Fosters campaign is that the responsibility to build a strong foster care system doesn’t rest solely on the shoulders of local departments of social services. It is a community responsibility.

“This approach isn’t just about government, it’s touching the nonprofit base and the business base,” Frazier, the campaign director of Virginia Fosters, said. “It’s not something that the local departments can do on their own, and neither can the state, so we’ve got to really coordinate and collaborate together.”

Finding solutions to the foster care crisis is personal for Kelly. Her son is now 8, and she intimately understands what foster and kinship families struggle through — from how difficult it can be to find resources to the stress of accomplishing seemingly small daily tasks while caring for an adopted child.

She often points out that, if her family is facing these issues even with all the connections they have, how is another family or a teen who has aged out of the system getting by?

“My kids have access to everyone in my Rolodex just by nature of being my kids,” she said. “These foster kids don’t deserve any less than that.”