A new state office aims to address longstanding gaps in Virginia’s foster care system

By: - June 30, 2021 12:02 am

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)

For decades, there’s often been nowhere to turn if something goes wrong in Virginia’s foster care system, a sprawling program administered through 120 local agencies — all with their own policies and operating procedures.

While there is a state Department of Social Services, officials have historically said they have little authority to intervene when local problems arise.

“It’s been a huge problem that families don’t really have a way to complain,” said Betty Wade Coyle, executive director emeritus of Prevent Child Abuse Hampton Roads.

A new state office is aimed at addressing those concerns. Last week. Gov. Ralph Northam announced the appointment of Virginia’s first Children’s Ombudsman, who will lead an agency focused on receiving — and investigating — complaints within the foster care system. Establishing the office has been a long-time goal for child welfare advocates, but 2020 marked the first time that state lawmakers allocated funding for it.

“When you think about the child welfare system, you’re often talking about removing children from their homes,” said Ali Faruk, the director of public policy for the nonprofit Families Forward Virginia. “And if it’s not done correctly, there’s nowhere to go besides the very agency that handled the case.”

Over the last decade, there have been several high-profile cases of local failures with limited state oversight, including Richmond — where social workers left children in dangerous situations to keep foster care numbers low — and Rockbridge County, where a supervisor allegedly shred reports of child abuse.

Advocates say addressing those inadequacies requires a strong understanding of agencies and the reality of their day-to-day work. To lead the office, Northam tapped Eric J. Reynolds, an attorney with more than a decade of local experience. At the start of his career, Reynolds spent 12 years as a parent representative and guardian ad litem, a lawyer who represents a child’s best interest in welfare cases. He later joined the Office of the Attorney General, where he represented many of the state’s child-serving agencies, including the Department of Social Services, Office of Children’s Services and Department of Medical Assistance Services, which oversees the administration of Virginia’s Medicaid program.

“It’s been sort of a progression in my career from practicing and advocating for children at the local level and then being able to take that experience with me,” Reynolds said. His last position was as staff attorney for the Court Improvement Program at the Virginia Supreme Court, which focuses specifically on improving outcomes in cases involving children.

That breadth of experience is largely viewed as an asset in the world of child welfare. Advocates in Virginia are often frustrated by the stratification of children’s services, spread across dozens of social service departments and multiple state agencies. The judicial system plays a large role in foster care cases, as do private providers — including group homes and treatment centers where a significant number of foster children are placed.

The array of services can make it difficult, if not impossible, for families to navigate the system. Coyle still remembers a mother who was concerned that her son was being abused in a residential treatment center. In an effort to get answers, they wrote to at least three different agencies, including VDSS and the state’s Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, which licenses many mental health facilities.

“That’s where I think Eric’s background and legal roots are really helpful,” said Emily Griffey, policy director for the child advocacy group Voices for Virginia’s Children. “We get calls from families all the time who are trying to navigate these complex systems and don’t have anywhere to turn. So I think the primary work will be figuring out what went wrong outside of any one agency.”

While ombudsman offices can take different forms across the country, their primary responsibility is to independently and impartially investigate complaints. As part of that role, state code gives Reynolds broad authority to access records, hold informal hearings and request subpoenas, if necessary, over the course of an investigation. 

While the law does allow the office to “pursue all necessary action” — including legal action — to protect the welfare of a child, Reynolds cautioned that it doesn’t currently give the ombudsman enforcement powers over local agencies. When things go wrong, the office can review policies and make recommendations for improvement. But it can’t immediately force a local agency to change its procedures.

“There are still some limitations,” he said. “This office — I think the role is primarily to shine a light. Investigate, identify the issues and say, ‘Hey, here’s a problem that needs to be resolved.’ ”

The ombudsman can also advocate for new legislation. Reynolds said one his primary goals — besides developing a mechanism to field complaints — will be addressing long-standing concerns within Virginia’s foster care system. Those include increasing the number of children placed with relatives — an area where the state has historically struggled — and reducing the number of Black youth who age out of the system without finding a stable home.

Advocates would like to see his authority expand as the office becomes an established watchdog agency. Currently, the ombudsman has oversight over social service departments, child-placing agencies and residential facilities — the providers responsible for children who are in foster care or eligible for adoption. But Coyle noted the oversight does not extend to private day schools, where Virginia frequently routes students with developmental and physical disabilities. 

Funding is another concern. The General Assembly allocated $895,500 over the next two years to establish the office, but the state’s Department of Planning and Budget anticipates staff and operating costs will grow significantly, especially as it begins to field more complaints.

“To me, I think the first thing is just making sure the office is getting the attention and cooperation it needs to do its job,” Faruk said. “But ultimately, this is one small step in the total restructuring of the system.”

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md. She was named Virginia's outstanding young journalist for 2021 by the Virginia Press Association.