With nowhere else to go, some Virginia foster children have been sleeping in government offices

The Youngkin administration announced a task force to address the problem, linked to a shortage of foster homes and other housing options

By: - April 1, 2022 12:16 pm

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)

Over a six-month period last year, 163 children in Virginia spent at least one night in hotels, emergency rooms or local government offices due to a shortage of foster homes and other permanent housing, Gov. Glenn Youngkin said Friday.

In response, Youngkin’s administration is launching a task force charged with bringing government partners together to find safe placements for unhoused children, develop a bigger reservoir of housing options and explore potential policy options.

“It is unacceptable that last year over 150 children in foster care spent the night in places that just simply are not meant for kids,” Youngkin said in a news release. “When this challenge came to our attention, my administration knew we had to act swiftly to ensure that every child has a safe place to belong.”

The Virginia Department of Social Services did not immediately respond to questions related to the announcement. But local agencies have faced a shortage of available foster homes for months. Last year, one of the state’s largest foster placement organizations told the Mercury it had seen a substantial decline in parental inquiries, raising concerns over its ability to make new placements. And Virginia is ranked at the bottom of the nation when it comes to kinship care, the practice of placing children with extended family rather than unrelated foster parents.

When local agencies can’t locate permanent placements — which can also include group homes and residential treatment centers — children end up sleeping in temporary spaces, including the offices of local departments of social services, according to the release. A shortage of mental health treatment beds, particularly for children, also plays a role. 

Currently, the state’s only publicly run psychiatric hospital for children and adolescents is operating at greatly reduced capacity due to staffing concerns and continued demand for beds. Often, children end up sleeping in emergency rooms due to the lack of treatment options. In March, a local social services agency sued the state over the issue, alleging that a foster child in its care was forced to spend four days in a Richmond emergency room without ever receiving adequate mental health care.

The lack of resources also puts a strain on crisis system workers, including police and employees with local agencies, according to the administration. Children who end up sleeping in temporary spaces often have the highest needs and are referred to social service agencies through family relinquishment or “child in need of services” (CHINS) petitions — filed in cases of children who regularly run away from home or routinely miss schools. With few places for those children to go, local workers stay with them and handle their cases until more permanent support is found.

“Social workers or law enforcement personnel stay overnight with children who are displaced, creating an undue burden on already overworked staff,” the release stated. “This greatly exacerbates the existing workforce shortages in the child welfare and criminal justice systems.”

While COVID-19 outbreaks and other pandemic-related challenges have added additional stressors to state-run hospitals, group homes and other placement options, the existing problems within Virginia’s foster care system have been well-known for years. A 2018 report found that local social services departments didn’t do enough to place children with relatives or ensure a steady stream of foster homes, resulting in more restrictive placements including congregate living facilities.

“Despite the persistent nature of these shortages, Virginia still has no plan, dedicated funding, or staff to systematically recruit non-relative foster families, in contrast to other states,” the report stated.

The Youngkin administration said the new task force would bring together both state and local agencies, residential facilities, hospitals and community partners to find sustainable solutions.  Eric Reynolds, the state’s recently appointed children’s ombudsman, has also been investigating some of the root causes, according to the news release.

“While there are a number of issues that created this untenable situation, it will require collaboration and creativity at both the local and state levels to solve it,” John Littel, Virginia’s secretary of health and human resources, said in a statement. “We are grateful to every child welfare worker who has worked to the best of their ability to ensure these kids are safe and we look forward to working together with them to end this practice.”

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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.