If Children Are the Future, We Should Start Acting Like It. 

Thursday, July 6th, 2023

While June, Family Reunification Month in Virginia and nationwide, has come to a close, its core commitment to doing what’s best for children’s development is a year-long pursuit.  

Children separated from their families and placed in foster care are more likely to struggle as adults. Across Virginia and the United States, children are taken away from their families and placed in foster care, often related to poverty, lack of access to resources, or racial discrimination. Many children will never be reunified with their families – Virginia has one of the worst rates in the country of children for reunification and aging out of foster care without a permanent home. Virginia must do more to reunify children with their families. Children are our future and we have an obligation to help them thrive as adults.  

 When families cannot access the resources they need to support their families, that lack may be viewed as “neglect.” Neglect is the most common basis for children entering the child welfare system in the United States, accounting for 63% of cases. We know from existing research that children do better when they remain with their family, rather than enter foster care. Providing resources and supports to strengthen families to be the best environment for children is a win-win: for families and for Virginia’s future. 

 Poverty is the single consistent predictor of child welfare involvement. For example, inaccessible childcare can lead to reports of inadequate supervision. In Virginia, the cost of childcare can amount to 25-50% of some families’ incomes, leaving low-income parents in a bind. Some Virginia localities have extreme racial disproportionality statistics with four-five times the number of Black children in foster care as in the general child population.  

 Virginia ranks consistently at or near the bottom for family reunification—or indeed any “permanency” outcomes for children. These children are more likely to experience hardships as adults, such as houselessness, joblessness, and substance abuse disorders. Children who age out of foster care are also less likely to complete high school or attend college, and there are higher rates of incarceration. 

 Instead of blaming parents, we should support families to ensure our children thrive. Indeed, the theme of this year’s Reunification Month was the resiliency and strength of our families. Universal pre-kindergarten and affordable childcare, which ease the burden on low-income families, have been proposed as family-supportive solutions by two members of Virginia’s congressional delegation: Senator Tim Kaine and Representative Bobby Scott of Hampton Roads. The bill, titled The Childcare For Working Families Act, was first introduced in 2017, and has since been reintroduced over multiple years with the hope of being enacted into law. 

 One approach that has improved outcomes for children in other states is to improve legal representation for their parents. A model of interdisciplinary offices with attorneys, social workers, and advocates has been shown to reduce the time children spend in foster care and help families access services and supports 

 However, Virginia provides only minimal legal representation. Virginia’s compensation for court-appointed parent counsel is one of the lowest in the nation, at only $120 per case. Judges in many localities report that they are unable to find attorneys willing to represent parents at this rate. Nor is this compensation enough for attorneys to devote the time necessary to effectively advocate for appropriate services and achieve the best outcomes for the family. The low pay is only one part of the issue; Virginia also lacks performance standards for parents’ attorneys. A legislative workgroup has therefore proposed to create a state-level office like those in other states to create and oversee performance standards and train attorneys. 

Providing resources to families instead of removing their children is another solution. When families have the resources they need, they are stronger, the children thrive, and foster care can be avoided. For example, Virginia could be providing financial assistance to prevent or resolve housing crises, which can affect child safety and well-being. This can include helping families with rent, utilities, or security deposits. Virginia could also help families find stable and affordable housing. This can involve partnering with housing agencies and advocates, and using tools and resources to identify housing options. 

Providing services is also a less traumatic alternative to family separation. For example, family support services can help parents enhance their skills and resolve problems. These services should be community-based, culturally responsive, and tailored to the needs of specific family, such as young parents or incarcerated parents. Agencies, services providers, and advocates should be sure to use a family-centered approach when proposing services, which involves listening to their needs and not taking away their autonomy in planning and decision-making. A family-centered approach focuses on parents’ strengths and concretely addressing the family’s stated needs. 

As the saying goes, our children are our future. However, as a state, we are leaving some children behind. To set all children up for success, we must be doing more to strengthen Virginia’s families by preventing family separation and quickly reunifying children in foster care with their families. 

                          By Cora Heinzen, VPLC law intern with the Center for Family Advocacy 

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