The departure of a senior social-services administrator in the City of Richmond has prompted an investigation into the city’s foster care program. The number of abuse and neglect petitions filed in the city’s district court has plummeted from 284 two years ago to only 76 by mid-December this year, prompting some to question whether the child welfare system put children at risk as it aimed to reduce the number of foster care cases.
The controversy stems in part from a national reevaluation of child welfare programs. For decades, reports Robert Zullo with the Times-Dispatch, foster children were often shuffled to from home to home, aging out of the system having never established family bonds. The new thinking has been to apply social-service resources to support struggling families before removing the children. Now some social workers are concerned that the pendulum has swung too far and that children are being left in danger with their natural families.
Interestingly enough, the downward trend in foster care cases can be seen in a peer analysis with neighboring states conducted by Virginia Performs. Over the past decade, Virginia has had lower foster-care rates (measured by cases per 1,000 children) than North Carolina, Tennessee and Maryland — and half the rate of the national average.
But there is enormous variation between regions. As might be expected, Northern Virginia, which has the highest incomes, highest education levels and most intact families, has the lowest rate. Southwest Virginia has the highest, with a rate running twice the national average. Central Virginia, which includes the City of Richmond, is slightly lower than the state average.
What does this mean? Does this mean there is less social dysfunction in Virginia than elsewhere? Perhaps. The state poverty rate is significantly lower than the national norm as well. On the other hand, the lower rate of foster care may reflect nothing more than a change in policy in social-services agencies across Virginia. The average wait time for foster care is about 18 months, higher than the national average. If children are waiting to be placed in foster homes, I presume, it means they aren’t being counted in the foster care rates.
Virginia Performs publishes another data set that may shed some light. Virginia happens to have a child abuse/neglect rate that is roughly one-third the national average. If there are fewer instances of child abuse and neglect, that would imply there is less need for foster care in Virginia. As the Virginia Performs website explains, however, “It is difficult to compare child maltreatment statistics across states because there is great variation in state laws, definitions, standards of evidence, and record keeping. It is estimated that up to 60% of child fatalities are incorrectly reported as accidents or other incidents, rather than as abuse.”
While state and national foster care rates have declined by roughly one third over the past decade, the City of Richmond rate dove by two-thirds in just two years. Those numbers suggest that, in the city at least, the lower rate reflects departmental policy, not the underlying reality of children’s well being. In all likelihood, a large number of Richmond children are being left in domestic situations in which their lives and health are at risk while city officials pursue the latest fad in social-services theory.