Virginia Must Do Better By Families
Monday, June 27th, 2022
By Valerie L’Herrou
Families are important to all of us, but especially to children. As British pediatrician and psychologist DW Winnicott put it, “There is no such thing as a baby. If you set out to describe a baby, you will find you are describing a baby and someone. A baby cannot exist alone, but is essentially part of a relationship.”
Because a child’s family is so important, National Reunification Month was created to bring attention to the most preferred “permanency option” for children in foster care: being returned to their family. (“Permanency” means that a child in the custody of the government – in foster care — leaves care promptly and grows up in a permanent family: their own, with a relative, or in an adoptive family.)
While nationally, reunification is the most common permanency option for children in the child welfare system, in Virginia, only 43.7% of children in foster care are reunified (though this is an improvement from a few years ago). Virginia has for years been at the bottom for ensuring children in foster care grow up in any permanent family: we have the highest rate of “aging out” of foster care in the country. Growing up in government custody is the worst possible outcome for children.
Why is reunification the best possible permanency outcome for a child in foster care?
Most children should not enter foster care: most CPS reports are based on neglect, not abuse. And even “neglect” may be in the eye of the beholder (racial bias, or views on how much supervision children need) or due to poverty, such as lack of housing or affordable childcare. Only a very tiny number of parents are truly terrible. And, even with not-so-great parents, studies increasingly show that, in most cases, children allowed to stay with them fare better in life than those maltreated children placed in foster care. Many parents simply need support or help to become the parents they want to be for the children they love.
Separation from parents is traumatizing and causes life-long changes to a child’s brain. Children in foster care often lose everything: not only their parents, but their homes, siblings, aunts, uncles, and grandparents; pets, friends — and even their school and community—everything they’ve ever known. Most children thrive best when growing up with their parents. Even if children must be removed for a time, returning home as quickly as possible is best for most.
We make it hard for parents
Under a system of federal and state laws, parents whose children have been removed by a court and placed in foster care are granted a strict timeline of hurdles they must navigate to “remedy” the issues that lead to a decision to remove a child. The foster care plans are often difficult for the parent to carry out, or unrealistic for a low-income family to achieve; and often, they are not provided with the support and guidance they need to carry out the plans they are given. Further, the goalposts are often moved—a parent may achieve all the requirements of their plan, only to find that new requirements are imposed.
Many caseworkers, judges, and others in the system view reunification as something a parent must deserve, rather than whether reunification is in the best interests of a child. Often, if a parent hasn’t jumped through all the demanded “hoops” to the satisfaction of the agency or of the court, reunification is withheld, as a punishment to the parent. But that ignores who is really being punished: the child, who may end up staying in foster care their entire childhood.
Better legal representation could help
Further, the lives and futures of far too many Virginia children are compromised by Virginia’s repeated rejection of opportunities to improve the training, support, and compensation for attorneys who represent parents. While a good lawyer can help parents by assuring the evidence for a child’s removal is sound; ensuring a parent’s plan for reunification is not too onerous and is directly related to the child’s safety; and assuring the parent is provided the support needed to achieve the safety-related aspects of their plan, Virginia does not ensure parents receive even adequate—never mind good—legal counsel. This, despite the many studies showing that improved legal representation for parents improves outcomes for children, and the availability of federal funds to help pay for it.
Virginia must do more to support families
Finally, when the justification for removing a child from their home may be based upon inadequate family resources, Virginia must do more to ensure every family has everything they need to be a safe and nurturing home for children. As one former foster youth told me, “If only they had given the money they paid to my foster parents to my mom, my brother and I could have stayed at home with her.”
CONTACT: Connie Stevens, Communications Director, Virginia Poverty Law Center