ROANOKE, Va. – Investigate. Advocate. Educate. That’s the goal of the Virginia Office of the Children’s Ombudsman that’s now officially taking complaints from families.
The office will review the actions, policies and procedures of child-serving agencies relating to child protective services and foster care and make recommendations for improvement.
“We’re here to try to improve the system. And if we identify areas of improvement in their agency and their local practices and their local staff, that’s what we’re going to shine the light on,” said Eric Reynolds, the director of the Office of the Children’s Ombudsman.
Reynolds started July 1, 2021, and was tasked with launching the first-ever office of the Children’s Ombudsman in the Commonwealth. He’s been hiring staff and developing policies while also taking up to 10 complaints a week.
Many of those calls come from families looking for answers on why their children were removed or how to get them back. They will look into those calls and if the cases rise to the level of the statutory criteria for an investigation, the Office of the Children’s Ombudsman will open up a formal investigation into determining whether or not the agency violated any laws or policies or procedures.
Many of those issues stem from communication between the agency staff and families. He points to turnover and training as where some of that is coming from.
“You got to understand the staff, challenging, low pay a lot of pressure. So it’s a difficult job for them to do. But you also have to understand these families, they’re intimidated, the government agency coming in and interrupting their family. They’re scared, they’re angry and so there’s a lot of emotion going on. You have to understand. You’ve got to have that the right dynamic to be able to deal with that.”
The ombudsman told 10 News that he’s had conversations with agencies across Virginia and in the Roanoke region about issues that have come up and they’ve been receptive.
“It’s not about firing staff or getting rid of staff. It’s about just helping them because the limitations and the challenges they are under because maybe they didn’t get that training, but they had to get hired and quickly get into the work because somebody had to do it,” said Reynolds. “My approach is really more of a problem-solving. We’re not looking at pointing fingers but we want to identify those areas where we can help them do their job better to serve the families because it’s ultimately about the families and the children that get affected by that work.”
His office will then go back to the families and help them understand the case from the agency’s side.
Reynolds says they don’t have the authority or jurisdiction to look at some things such as judges’ decisions or court orders, actions of attorneys, and personnel decisions.
“But there may be some remedies or some other options that they may have to help resolve their concerns. Or they just need to be told you know, here’s the system, here’s what you can expect from this. Just sort of educate them about the process. They have a little bit of understanding about what to expect if it’s something that we can’t really look into,” said Reynolds.
You can now file a complaint online about a child-serving agency, such as the local Department of Social Services, or a licensed child-placing agency with regard to children who have been abused or neglected, or who are receiving child protective services or in foster care. Reynolds says within 24 hours, you’ll receive an email or a phone call asking for more information about your complaint.
You can find contact information and the online complaint form on the Office of the Children’s Ombudsman website here.
Reynolds has been advocating since July 1 and throughout the general assembly session on a statewide level for children’s issues.
You can see the story and interview we did with Reynolds in November 2021 here.