RICHMOND, Va. — “She said being taken from us was worse than being taken from her biological family.”
Christmas cards from “me” to “you.” An ornament a little girl gave to her foster mom. They were packed away, memories too difficult to bear for a young couple from central Virginia, who hoped to adopt a foster child they took in two years ago.
The family tells us they fear retaliation, so we’ve hidden their identities. We were put in touch with them through advocates with Voices for Virginia’s Children, which works to improve the lives of kids across the commonwealth.
“It’s difficult, not many people are willing to talk about it,” a man from Central Virginia said. “Especially any that have current foster kids.”
Their daughter also had siblings in foster care. Not seeing them took a toll on her.
“Initially,” the woman said, “we were trying to fight to for her just to be able to talk to her siblings, to have contact with them, to have visits with them, to have a relationship with them.”
The agency denied their requests. After months of back and forth, the little girl was taken out of their custody.
“By the time that the disruption happened, we were her parents,” the man added. “She thought of us as her parents. She fully expected to be with us forever.”
Heartbroken – the parents went to state officials for help.
“There was nobody that could do anything. Pretty much everybody that we talked to agreed that the situation was crazy,” the man said.
“There needs to be an appeals process for the foster parents too,” his wife added.
According to a recently released report by JLARC, there were about 5,300 children in the foster care system in 2016. That number is about the same, a spokesperson for the Department of Social Services says. There are also approximately 3,000 foster families in Virginia at a given time.
Between 2012 and 2016, the JLARC report shows 54 percent of kids 12 and older aged or phased out of the system before finding a permanent home. That’s about more than double the national average, which is 25 percent.
Compared to the rest of the nation, Virginia has one of the lowest rates of foster care entries in the nation. A DSS spokesperson says the department has made “key investments in foster care prevention and adoption over the past two years,” to make sure children are placed with family members before entering the system. The number of adoptions that were finalized for the 2017-2018 fiscal year also reached “record numbers,” a DSS spokesperson said.
The JLARC study also found appeals to adopt foster children we waiting a long time in court and caseloads for agencies were piling up.
“We would have adopted our child months before she was taken from us but we were waiting,” the foster mom said.
These problems caught the attention of state senators.
“What we’ve seen in our district when working some of these cases is some of the localities tend to have retribution against people who have families who complain,” Sen. Bryce Reeves (R-District 17) said.
Sen. Reeves is sponsoring what some are calling the “Foster Care Omnibus Bill,” (SB1339). This would create more state oversight into local social services boards, bringing in staff to look into caseload problems.
“The state isn’t exerting enough control in places they don’t have the people do it,” Sen. Monty Mason (D- District 1), a co-patron of the legislation, said. “[The] bill specifically lays out staff and people that can go analyze it up front and say ‘oh you’re deficient here, let us help you. Let us help you come up to speed.”
The bill also creates a hotline where foster parents can report issues.
Overall, these programs would cost nearly $5.5 million, according to the series of budget amendments related to the bill.
Per policy, the Department of Social Services doesn’t comment on pending legislation. In a statement, a department spokesperson said, “Virginia’s foster care system is a top priority for the administration.
The JLARC report affirmed critical areas of opportunity our administration has identified for improving the system. Our administration already has a number of actions underway and has identified future strategies to increase state oversight and investments in the system.”
SB1339 is expected to appear before the Senate Finance Committee within the next few weeks.
As for the young couple who hoped to adopt out of foster care, they’re worried something bad will happen next time they try. They haven’t seen or heard anything about the little girl they learned to love.
“I wish we could tell her how hard we tried,” the woman said. “We really, we picked up every rock. To try and find something.”