Federal funds can now be used to help Va. families before kids are put in foster care

Capitol Connection

RICHMOND, Va. — State officials are working on ways to implement new strategies to identify children at risk of being put into foster homes and give tools to their families to prevent that from happening.

Governor Ralph Northam signed into law SB1679 and HB2014, which puts Virginia in line with the federal Family First Prevention Services Act of 2018

Under the law, federal money can go towards various services before a child is placed with a foster family. Va. Dept. of Social Services officials say early intervention with these services can reduce the number of children put in foster care. 

Before, families had to wait to get access to services, such as for substance abuse prevention, mental health treatment as well as in-home therapy sessions, until after a child is removed from the home. 

“Kids don’t come with manuals, unfortunately,” Donna Guevara said. “Some parents don’t realize they’re doing the wrong thing.”

Guevara runs a small group where people talk about the struggles they have raising their kids and develop better skills to cope with the stresses they may have with parenting. One of the topics they’ve covered, for example, is what to do instead of spanking a kid. 

She herself needed help when she got pregnant nearly 30 years ago. After being in what she describes as a bad foster family situation, Guevara wanted to learn what being a good parent really meant. So, she joined a counseling group like the one she now leads.  “The things that had been done to me I thought was normal, and of course I’m finding out that it’s not normal,” she explained. “Because, I didn’t want to abuse her. I didn’t want to be a bad parent. Then people started talking to me and telling me that it’s something that I could change.”

These counseling groups is similar to the prevention services that will now be available before a child is removed from a home. 

Carl Ayers with the Department of Social Services says children go through more trauma being removed from their home and being placed into foster care, than being with their biological family and going through treatment. 

“The idea is that whenever a child is at risk of coming into foster care…we are able to put services in place and prevent the need from having to remove and bring them into care,” Ayers said.

According to data from the Dept. of Social Services, 55,255 children were reported as possible victims of abuse or neglect in Virginia during the 2018 state fiscal year. Educators reported 22% of these incidents.

“A child comes to school wearing the same close multiple days, if a child comes to school and they are bruised,” Lisa Specter-Dunaway of Families Forward Virginia said. “Teachers really have a sense of what is standard or normal and what is not.”

Families Forward Virginia works to prevent child abuse. Specter-Dunaway says the “key is somebody picking it up early” and learning about the cycle of abuse that parents can stop. 

“Parents who had been abused are more likely to abuse their children, and so we look at how we support those parents so that they can break those cycles,” she explained. 

Families participate in the programs for about a year. DSS officials say roughly 100 organizations around the state are working to make it happen. 

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