FISHERVILLE, Va. – There are more than 600 children who are ready for adoption in Virginia. They are ready to find a permanent and loving forever family. 10 News is profiling one child who needs a home every day at 6 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. in 30 Days of Hope. The children are all ages and races and were put into foster care due to no fault of their own. 2021 marks the fifth year 10 News is doing this series.
More oversight for the foster care system. The foster care system can be difficult to navigate for foster families and biological parents trying to keep their kids. But now, there’s a new office to help with the challenges and investigate if needed.
“We are expecting the floodgates to open once we do become public,” said Eric Reynolds, the Director of the first Office of the Children’s Ombudsman.
His office works with anyone who touches child protective services or foster care.
He took a tour last month of the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center so he can learn what options are out there for training the children aging out of foster care without a family.
The Office of the Children’s Ombudsman can do different things from providing information to biological families when they have concerns to opening investigations.
“We’ll take a look and see what was done was policy followed, was there a policy violated, or a law violated and what did the agency do,” said Reynolds, an important job since social services is state supervised but locally administered, meaning each department of social services can operate differently.
“I think an office like this is perfect for this kind of format because of the lack of accountability that we have here,” said Reynolds. “But each locality has their own social service office that’s run locally according to how they see fit.”
If the office existed in 2016, Reynolds could have looked into Rockbridge County after an internal investigation found the department of social services had been shredding documents and ignoring cases of physical and sexual abuse to children. In at least one case, it led to the death of an infant.
Right now, his office is working about 25 different calls it needs to address.
“Virginia law gives a lot of authority to social services about placement decisions, you know which foster home to go in, or which adoptive family,” said Reynolds. “Those decisions have to be made, but there’s no checks and balances on that. When a decision to take a child away from this family and put them with a different foster family, was that decision in the child’s best interest? There’s no way to really check that.”
He’s asking if there’s a way to change a policy or law which he can propose or advocate for as part of his job. Another one of his primary concerns is better legal representation for parents.
“Can we as Virginia take a look at some of these other models of representation so that we can provide those quality services, legal services to families, the children and the parents so the judges can make really good decisions, and you know help keep the system accountable,” said Reynolds. “We don’t pay parents counsel, that are court appointed, to represent parents enough to do the work that is necessary to help parents navigate the system and be able to get their children back. And I think once we do that, that’s another piece of the puzzle to having a better working child welfare system.”
He says there are different areas of the commonwealth who are interested in the idea, but says it’s a long term project because the system is so complex and it will take a lot of people working together to change it.
Reynolds also says he’s seeing staffing issues in social service departments across Virginia.
“Their case load is going to go up and the quality of the work that they’re going to be able to do for each case goes down. And so we recognize that and we’re going to take that into consideration when we look at it,” said Reynolds.
Reynolds will be advocating for certain things in the upcoming legislative session but says with more time, his office will see more patterns and will advocate more.
His contact info is not published yet, as they’re still working to build up staff and the case management system.
Right now, they are a staff of three and they’re ironing out policies and procedures, while also laying out job duties. They’re investigating cases together and trying to identify the issues within the system. In other states with children’s ombudsman, the number of staff range from two to 130. Reynolds believes they’ll eventually have a department of six to eight people.
If you have questions about foster care/adoption, contact VDSS Division of Family Services, Juliet Baldwin, Adoption Recruitment Coordinator, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To see other 30 Days of Hope stories visit us here: https://www.wsls.com/topic/30_Days_Of_Hope/
We also have a list of frequently asked questions about foster care and adoption including the cost, training, etc in this link.