ROANOKE, 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.
Virginia is number one in the country for business but almost last when it comes to kids aging out of foster care. It’s a statistic that many are concerned about.
We’re working for you to find out what could be done differently to help children all over the Commonwealth.
“My childhood was pretty traumatic I would say, I was raised in a family where my mom was an alcoholic and a drug addict, so was my dad,” said Tori Mabry.
Her mom eventually went to prison and at 9-years-old she moved in with her 21-year-old sister in the Richmond area.
“It was challenging. We lived in a trailer park for the majority of our time there and she struggled financially,” said Mabry. “I knew that she was doing the best that she could at the time with what she had and if it had not been for her, I’m not really sure where I would be.”
For almost a decade, until she turned 18 and moved out, it was hard. She lived with holes in the floor, bugs and a lack of food.
“As a young kid, you always question, you know, ‘Is this how normal life is?’ and I had friends who had much better lives and lived in big fancy houses,” recalls Mabry.
“It can be a little bit frustrating as a child advocate when we look at where our resources are funneled in the state. We know well yes, it’s important to have a healthy and thriving economy, it doesn’t matter if our children aren’t able to thrive in our commonwealth,” said Allison Gilbreath, who raises awareness about what’s happening in the foster care system as the Voices for Virginia’s Children Policy and Programs director.
According to data from Voices for Virginia’s Children, Virginia’s remained one of the three worst states for kids aging out of foster care without a permanent connection for a decade. Gilbreath said it’s 20% of kids and data shows they’re more likely to not go to college, have poor workforce outcomes, and higher rates of incarceration.
According to data from the Kids Count Data Center from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, here’s a breakdown of the three best and worst states for children aging out of foster care in 2019:
Three best states
- West Virginia
Three worst states
“A lot of the reasons we continue to rank at the bottom are because we have poor resources to fund our foster care system. One of the big issues too is that we lack in kinship care, and kinship care simply means placement for a relative. And in Virginia we’ve done a really poor job of paying kinship caregivers equitably the same way we pay foster parents, and we make it a bit more difficult to become a kinship foster parent because we the statute that’s called ‘barrier crimes,’” said Gilbreath. “For example, if you had a marijuana charge ten years ago you still couldn’t be a foster parent in Virginia.”
West Virginia is one of many states prioritizing kinship care, consistently in the top three leading the way for kids being adopted before aging out. Wyoming, Mississippi and Indiana are also consistently leading the way.
We reached out to find out how they’re doing it.
The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources told us the emphasis for finding relative and fictive kin caregivers begins immediately upon the child being removed from their home. Fictive kin means someone they already know like a teacher or church member. A department spokesperson said about 53.8% of West Virginia children in foster care are placed with a relative or fictive kin caregiver.
“West Virginia provides financial support to relative and fictive kin caregivers. These caregivers are provided additional support through the kinship navigator grants. They are encouraged to become certified kinship/relative caregivers which allows the caregivers to receive more financial support and family services. Efforts to increase relative and fictive kin placements include partnering with Aetna, West Virginia’s managed care organization that works with foster children, families, and child welfare staff. Aetna has implemented supplementary programs to aid in the identification of relatives or fictive kin for children who enter foster care. One of those programs is the Family Finding model that centers around a theory of change in child protection. Family Finding boot camps are a group learning opportunity where child welfare staff and community partners learn to use new skills and tools together, while working with children and families,” said a department spokesperson.
“For many, many years we only put about six to seven percent of children in kinship care. In the last two years we’ve bumped that up to almost 15 percent,” said Gilbreath.
Lynchburg is doing better than the Virginia average though. April Watson with Lynchburg Human Services says they prioritize placing children with relatives and with about 35% with relatives currently, that’s about 55 kids.
“What we found is our siblings are staying together, they’re able to stay in their school of origin, they’re able to stay in Lynchburg, they’re home. They’re able to connect with other relatives and maintain those relationships,” said Watson, who added a third of Lynchburg adoptions are now kinship adoptions.
“Families deserve to be together when they can be safe,” said Watson. “It’s not a perfect process but we’re trying really hard to increase those numbers.”
Watson says it takes more work, but it’s worthwhile because they’re seeing good results.
“There’s the opportunity cost. Legislators have to make a choice, either they spend on the front end, or they will absolutely spend on the back end. That could be juvenile justice services, criminal justice services. We know that there is a cost when we don’t invest in children early and often,” said Gilbreath.
Mabry’s now an advocate, speaking to Virginia lawmakers as someone who lived the struggle and now sees it daily as a local social worker after getting help from her church community to go to college. She says her goal was to help break the cycle of generational poverty and abuse. She says her quality of life would have been much better if the kinship services would have been around then.
“They’ve [Virginia’s] improved since I was with my sister almost a decade ago. But I think we have still a long way to go,” said Mabry.
Kinship care only works if someone is found that’s willing to take in the children, who can meet all the requirements.
There are many more things Gilbreath and her team are pushing for that they say will improve foster care:
- Funding for the system: “We need to adequately fund our foster care system, we have opportunities to invest millions of dollars into our foster care system coming up at this legislative session. We need legislators to respond and act, and we need to provide more services for children and families: mental health services, in-home parenting classes.”
- More money for case workers: “In Virginia, you could work at Hobby Lobby, or you could be a child welfare worker, and you’re going to make more money at Hobby Lobby. So we have a serious workforce issue with our foster care system, 69-percent of workers quit in their first two years. It’s difficult work when you’re talking about maybe having 10, 12 cases, which might not be children. You might have 12 cases and 30 children that you are responsible for.”
- Prevention: “A lot of children who come into foster care do because their families are experiencing poverty. And poverty and child abuse and neglect are not the same thing. And so, we have to address those underlying causes of why are children even entering the foster care system to begin with.”
- More services for people in poverty: “When we talk to these young people as they are 16, 17, 18 years old, they’ll often tell us, ‘Why didn’t anyone just help my family?’ Is often the question that they’ll ask me, instead of ‘Why was I removed?’ And that’s the question I want for folks who are allocating the dollars to understand. It’s that families need financial support sometimes, instead of going into foster care, where we’re still paying that financial security for another family to take care of that child. I think that if we were able to get better and make that distinction, when we do place a child in foster care, it would be because they absolutely need to be.”
- Expanding Great Expectations from community colleges into high schools and putting money into it: “There’s a great program called Great Expectations that’s on local community college campuses that works with kids who either aged out or have been in foster care, to help them as they transition into that post-secondary education. When I speak to young people, they tell me that is the number one program that has impacted them in their lives. It helps them do some things that maybe a typical parent might do, all the way from helping them get their books for college, all the way up to helping them finance college and finding them grants and tuition assistants and help them navigate into adulthood. One of the opportunities that the Virginia General Assembly has is to invest some state dollars into that program. Because right now its completely private donations that fund that program.”
Gilbreath also said the Commission on Youth is doing a study right now on workforce opportunities to include what Virginia is doing right and how can we invest in it more.
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.
We also have a list of frequently asked questions about foster care and adoption including the cost, training, etc in this link.