Foster children across Virginia are struggling to find placements, driven by a staffing shortage and lack of access to supportive families. (Getty Images stock photo)
The number of children in foster care across Virginia has remained relatively stable throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. But one of the state’s largest private foster care agencies has seen a major decline in parental inquiries — raising concerns over its ability to make new placements.
Nancy Toscano, the president and CEO of United Methodist Family Services, said the number of families interested in fostering has gone down by 30 percent over the last six months compared to the same time period last year. That means fewer people will complete the approval process and ultimately be able to accept children into their homes.
“The numbers of kids in our care has gone down as a result,” Toscano said. “Not dramatically, but it catches up. And we end up rejecting referrals that come from the Department of Social Services.”
That “domino effect,” as Toscano described it, is another stressor on an already overburdened system. Currently, there are about 5,400 children in foster care, a number that’s remained largely consistent over the last three years. But a 2018 report by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, a state watchdog agency, found a shortage of caseworkers and major shortcomings in the basic steps required to ensure the safety of children in the system.
Virginia is also ranked at the bottom in the nation when it comes to kinship care — placing children with extended family rather than foster parents.
As a result, outside families are a critical component of the state’s foster care infrastructure. Toscano said those numbers remained relatively stable at the beginning of the pandemic, largely driven by parents who had already committed to the process. But as the months dragged on, her organization saw inquiries dwindle, sparking concern that fewer people were even considering the process.
“When we talk to foster parents, it usually takes them about a year of thinking about it before they pick up that phone and say, ‘Yes, I’m interested,’” she said. “That’s where we think that delay is — folks haven’t gone through that consideration period during the pandemic because of all the stressors.”
Becoming a foster parent is already a rigorous process. At United Methodist Family Services, approval takes between three to six months, including an informational session, pre-service training and a home study period — when the agency performs background checks and vets potential families. But as layoffs forced thousands more Virginians on unemployment and school closures disrupted home life across the state, Toscano thinks there was a major drop-off in people who were contemplating the possibility of fostering.
“It’s a big effort and commitment to accept a child into your home,” she said. Existing foster families have also shouldered more stress over the last year, including a rise in mental health struggles — especially anxiety and depression — that physicians have noted in children across the state.
Over the last few weeks, the number of new infections and hospitalizations in Virginia have dropped to their lowest level in nearly a year — prompting an accompanying rollback in statewide restrictions. And as vaccinations continue to rise, Toscano is encouraging more families to at least enroll in informational sessions about the foster care process.
The state’s General Assembly has also taken some action to ease the burdens on the system. Earlier this year, Gov. Ralph Northam signed a bill from Sen. Monty Mason, D-Williamsburg, that will provide state-funded financial support to relatives who take in potential foster children (previously, so called “kinship families” received no financial assistance unless they went through the same approval process as foster parents). Another successful bill from Del. Wendy Gooditis, D-Loudoun, aims to make kinship placements easier and give older children more involvement in their foster care plan.
But boosting outside engagement remains a vital part of the system. While family reunification is a core goal of the foster care process, Toscano said it’s difficult to support children at all without a stable home to place them in.
“The key to our success is finding, supporting and training these loving foster families so we can accept referrals,” she said. “And so we do worry about pandemic fatigue.”
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