Foster Care: How Big a Problem in Virginia?

Source: Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission

As the General Assembly ponders how to reform Virginia’s sometimes-dysfunctional foster care system, I thought it worthwhile to present some data on the stakes involved.

The number of children in the system decreased between 2007 and 2013, then ticked up again in recent years. One reason for the increase, according to the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) report, “Improving Virginia’s Foster Care System,” was the creation of the Fostering Futures program, which raised the age at which children exit foster care from 18 to 21.

At the same time, notes JLARC, Virginia has the lowest rate of foster-care placement of any state in the country. In September 2016, the proportion of children in foster care was 2.6 per 1,000 children. States JLARC: “The precise reasons for Virginia’s low rate are unclear.”

Is that lowest-in-the-country statistic an artifact of the sad reality that Virginia’s local foster care agencies are understaffed, overworked and letting needy children fall between the cracks? Or does it reflect a more hopeful reality that the Old Dominion has a lower incidence of child abuse and neglect? Sounds like a basic question that we should know the answer to.

Here’s one clue: While Virginia has the lowest rate of foster care in the country, our neighbor West Virginia has the highest — almost 16%. A significant percentage of Virginia’s population resides in ethnically and socioeconomically similar mountain counties bordering West Virginia. In terms of foster care, do they most resemble the rest of Virginia… or West Virginia?

JLARC also notes that children have been entering foster care at younger ages, and that younger children constitute a higher percentage of the foster-care population than in the past. This trend, JLARC concludes, is tied to increasing social dysfunction:

A driving factor behind both the increase in the number of children in foster care in recent years and the shift to a younger population appears to be an increase in parental drug abuse. … The increase in foster care entries due to parental drug abuse is a nationwide trend, but Virginia’s growth rate has been faster than other states.

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5 responses to “Foster Care: How Big a Problem in Virginia?

  1. A huge issue, a real opportunity to improve the life prospects of these young people. The JLARC report was highly critical, but key recommendations are coming in pending legislation. The dollar cost I’m told is low. Disclaimer: I’m on the board of a social service non-profit, Families Forward, very involved in serving this population and supporting this bill.

    http://leg1.state.va.us/cgi-bin/legp504.exe?191+sum+SB1339

    Take a minute and just read the summary of the bill, and you get an idea what is going on. Note that the bill seems to have the entire State Senate membership as patrons. Don’t see that on much except memorial resolutions.

  2. Thanks for this post, Jim. This issue probably does not have as much of a hot-button quality that some others on this blog have, but it is terribly important. The JLARC is damning. One of the problems with our system is that it is bifurcated: the state “supervises” (i.e. sets regulations) and the localities administer. The qualify of administration varies widely, to a large extent depending on fiscal ability.

    The question of why Virginia has the lowest rate of children in foster care is an intriguing one and I am surprised that JLARC did not follow up. Your suggestion of looking at West Virginia, which borders Va. and has the highest rate, seemed like a good direction to follow. However, our other neighbors, Tennessee, N.C. and Md., also have fairly low rates, below the national median. Kentucky does have a relatively higher rate, above the median. To be meaningful, a comparison would have to be made of counties adjoining each other on the borders.

  3. Thanks for this post, Jim. This issue probably does not have as much of a hot-button quality that some others on this blog have, but it is terribly important. The JLARC is damning. One of the problems with our system is that it is bifurcated: the state “supervises” (i.e. sets regulations) and the localities administer. The qualify of administration varies widely, to a large extent depending on fiscal ability. The proposed legislation could help, but it will require that the state Commissioner be active. There will be a cost. We’ll see if the GA is willing to provide the funding.

    The question of why Virginia has the lowest rate of children in foster care is an intriguing one and I am surprised that JLARC did not follow up. Your suggestion of looking at West Virginia, which borders Va. and has the highest rate, seemed like a good direction to follow. However, our other neighbors, Tennessee, N.C. and Md., also have fairly low rates, below the national median. Kentucky does have a relatively higher rate, above the median. To be meaningful, a comparison would have to be made of counties adjoining each other on the borders.

  4. I may be wrong but the fact that Virginia has a lower number and lower rate makes me wary.

    What I do know is that locally in Spotsylvania, Social Services is overwhelmed to the max. I don’t know how they do it with the resources they have and I heard recently that attrition is high – the pay is low and the hours long and they get burned out. I’m told it is a very stressful and emotional job… every case is upsetting to the workers processing the clients.

    And I think there is a connection to the Medicaid issue in that social services is so overwhelmed that signing up eligible for Medicaid is not as important priority as other issues and as a result that ball gets dropped.

    But this organization: Virginia Health Care Foundation – has stepped in to sign people up for MedicAid – AND they are doing a BANG UP JOB – much to the dismay of the folks who forecast and the GA budget folks.

    Perhaps Haner or Bacon or Sizemore can do a blog post to educate folks on
    who these folks are and what they do and how they fit into the health care/Medicaid landscape in Virginia.

  5. The JLARC report is quite accurate on the state of foster care, without even doing an analysis into the overall landscape (of which foster care is just a part). You can learn more about the state of foster care in Virginia here: vakids.org or here: https://scholarship.richmond.edu/pilr/vol22/iss1/5/

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