To improve foster care in Virginia, work to keep families together

Tuesday, May 14th, 2019

This April, Governor Northam signed bipartisan legislation improving foster care in Virginia, an outcome of work between VPLC, community partners, and legislators in response to problems with the state’s foster care system.

Still, there’s more to be done, including before children enter the system and around how we make decisions about removing children from their families.

We usually assume that children in foster care have been victims of horrific neglect or abuse, and often they have been. Though frequently, children land in the foster care system because of poverty, untreated mental health issues, systemic racism, or our lack of support for and judgment of parents who struggle with their own histories of trauma.

The majority of reports to Child Protective Services (CPS) are for neglect rather than abuse. Many cases of neglect are not intentional but rather due to lack of knowledge of good parenting techniques, mental health or substance use disorders, inability to find child care, homelessness, domestic violence, stress, or different views on raising children.

In our zeal to protect children from perceived harm, sometimes we end up causing them more damage. When CPS separates families rather than providing them support to become strong, nurturing, and self-supporting, children suffer trauma that can have lifelong impacts. Children experience being ripped away from loved ones as a deep loss that permanently affects the brain—even for children who are placed in stable, healthy foster homes. For those who experience additional trauma in foster care (a third of children in foster care experience at least two foster homes, further disrupting their attachment), this compounds any trauma they may already have experienced in their home life.

Once children are in foster care, laws can make it difficult for them to return home. Virginia has particularly low rates of family reunification for children in foster care: 26% of children are reunited with their parents as opposed to 50% nationally. We also have one of the highest rates of youth who age out of foster care without ever returning home or finding an adoptive family: 19% as compared with 8% nationally.

While many local social service agencies provide excellent support to help parents regain their children, Virginia’s short timetable for parents to regain custody—12 months—can make it difficult for parents to surmount the barriers to the return of their children. For example, a person with a substance abuse disorder typically takes longer than 12 months to successfully overcome their disorder. By the time they do so, the state may have terminated their rights to their child, even if they are otherwise an excellent parent, as happened to this Dinwiddie mother.

Because we don’t adequately support and compensate our child-welfare workforce, many social workers are too stressed or too inexperienced to navigate a non-adversarial relationship with a traumatized, stressed parent. They may make judgments about what makes a good parent that may be biased, uninformed, or intolerant of differences.

Often, the conditions placed on parents for return of their children are increased even once they have met the initial requirements. For example: a mother who is a victim of domestic violence has her children taken into foster care after she leaves them with relatives when she becomes homeless after leaving her abusive partner. She intends it to be only a few days, but her PTSD make it difficult for her to find and keep a job and rent a suitable home. The relatives can’t afford to keep the children, so they call social services to take custody. Even after the mother gets a steady job, finds a home, and attends counseling sessions with her children to help them recover from the trauma of the violence they witnessed, they are not returned. Instead, because the counseling is going well, an additional weekly session is added. Afraid she will lose her job if she asks for additional time off, she frequently misses the extra session each week. Without a car or a driver’s license, she begs for rides from friends, sometimes arriving late. Finally, feeling hopeless and struggling with PTSD and her own guilt about her children, she stops attending altogether. The social workers decide she hasn’t put in enough effort to have her children returned, so they change their recommendation to the court from “return home” to “adoption.” Her parental rights are terminated, but she never abused or neglected her children. Her life circumstances, our social attitudes, and a lack of understanding permanently deprive these children of their mother.

Children who age out of foster care after their parents’ rights have been terminated are at risk for factors such as homelessness (20% of youth experience homelessness after aging out), low educational attainment, and poor employment attainment. Youth who participate in the Fostering Futures program, which provides support for foster youth up to age 21, and programs such as Great Expectations, which supports youth in Virginia’s community college system, can beat these odds—and many have, often finding fulfilment in helping other foster youth. Recent law changes make it easier for children in foster care to remain connected with birth families, even increasing the possibility that older children may be reunited with parents even after termination of rights.

We need to do more to prevent unnecessary family separation, creating better support to help families move out of poverty and better infrastructure for attorneys working with families in the dependency system. Federal funding will allow states to provide better legal representation to parents and children and better training around the lifelong effects of trauma and how it may impact parents’ compliance with Department of Social Services’ requirements. We must do more to enable local departments, attorneys, and courts to help parents improve their parenting and regain their children. We must do more to keep families together.

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