Virginia budget jumpstarts foster care reform, increases TANF benefit

Virginia Mercury

The massive, bipartisan foster care system overhaul proposed this session after a scathing report was released in December passed the General Assembly without a single ‘no’ vote from either chamber.

Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania, sponsored the legislation, with 39 senators signing on to co-sponsor. Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, carried the $2.8 million budget amendment, which both chambers also agreed to in their budget negotiations.

The money covers a slew of new positions within the Department of Social Services, including: 10 regional foster care staff, a regional project manager and five positions to monitor foster care services.

Carl Ayers, director of family services with DSS, said he hopes to get those positions filled on or around July 1 of this year.

The legislation also officially establish a director of foster care health and safety position; create a compliance dashboard and complaint hotline; and limits social workers’ caseloads.

The effort to address deficiencies within the state’s foster care system since the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission’s December report was applauded by advocates, many of whom have been pushing for reform for years.

Department staff, too, welcomed the reform effort, though they noted that the state’s child welfare system needs consistent support from the legislature to create meaningful, lasting change. The department continues to struggle with training and retention.

Other foster care reforms passed this session include legislation requiring DSS to freeze foster care children’s credit to prevent identity theft and a bill that requires local departments to notify relatives when a child is about to enter foster care, and list all the resources available to them, such as becoming a licensed kinship foster home.

Kinship families — those who have not gone through the foster care system but have taken relatives’ children — often rely solely on the Temporary Assistance for Need Families program as their only means of financial assistance.

The General Assembly included in its budget a 5 percent increase in TANF benefits. The program provides cash benefits and other supports, like child care, for low-income families.

The increases costs the state $3.5 million and equals about $20 more for a family of three a month.

From The Bulletin, the Mercury’s blog, where we post quick hits on the news of the day, odds and ends and commentary.