Looking toward 2020, Virginia lawmakers double down on foster care reform

Virginia Mercury

In the wake of the General Assembly’s push to reform Virginia’s foster care system this year, legislators seem poised to maintain the momentum into future sessions.

Virginia’s Commission on Youth held a foster care seminar for legislators on Monday, with presenters covering everything from how the current system works to what foster parents and youth aging out of the system go through.

The point of the seminar, explained Amy Atkinson, the commission’s executive director, is to get ready for the 2020 session and educate lawmakers on foster care, in particular to supplement the work of the newly-formed foster care caucus.

The reform effort launched, in part, to respond to a December report by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, which highlighted a host of ills within foster care.

“Foster care is still a gray area for a lot of people,” said Del. Richard “Dickie” Bell, R-Staunton, the Commission’s chair, during the seminar. “We have taken some heat because of our system. We’re here today to start the fix on that.”

Both advocates and social services officials, while applauding the upgrades instituted last session, have long urged the legislature not to treat the reform as a one-time effort, claiming the problems will take years to fix.

While there are several areas in which Virginia performs well — like in speedily responding to reports of child abuse or neglect — there are other challenges within the overarching child welfare system that have persisted for decades and which lawmakers have yet to address. Many of those have to do with the workforce: Social services agencies deal with high turnover, low salaries and an antiquated training system.

“We have turnover rates that are approaching 40 plus percent in many of our local departments,” Carl Ayers, director of the Division of Family Services with DSS, told the commission on Monday. “The reality is we cannot keep our family services specialists inside our local departments for, generally, two years. Our training program — to get them educated and ready for their actual work — is two years. So we aren’t even getting them through the training program to serve our children and families.”

The lawmakers also heard from current foster parents and the challenges they face, along with young adults who aged out of foster care without a permanent connection. Staff from the Bedford County Department of Social Services also presented on how difficult and traumatizing the job can be, while informing lawmakers that a new social worker makes as much as a new employee at Hobby Lobby.

“It’s easy to dwell on the negative,” Bell said. “We live in that kind of world, that’s the culture we live in these days. But let’s not turn the challenges of foster care into some kind of ‘Eeyore’ moment: ‘Woe is me, we can’t fix it.’ Because we can fix it.”