Department of Social Services could be putting safety of children at risk

Thousands of children are being diverted from foster care, sent to live with family or friends, without the proper background checks

ROANOKE, Va. – This story is part of a 10 News investigation. Foster Care: Kids in Crisis is looking into several aspects of the Virginia foster care system including why children are forced to sleep in offices and hotel rooms and what’s being done to fix the issues.

The safety of children at risk. The Department of Social Services is supposed to protect children but a 10 News Investigation discovered that’s not always happening.

Thousands of children are being diverted from foster care and sent to live with family or friends without the proper background checks. It’s ending in disaster and heartbreak.

“We all know that the system is flawed,” said Eric Reynolds, the Director of the Office of the Children’s Ombudsman.

But it may be more flawed than we realize.

“Right now we’ve got about 4,900 kids in foster care, and I would say really out-of-home care that’s facilitated by social services, I would say it’s double that,” said Reynolds. “Agencies are trying to avoid putting kids through the system, but they’re making the determination that the child is not safe to be at home. You got a lot of problems with that from a legal perspective.”

Hidden foster care, foster care diversion, kinship diversion and shadow foster care. Those are the names for what’s happening across Virginia, according to Reynolds.

10 News asked if agencies were trying to keep kids off the books, or if they are trying to keep their caseloads down.

“It could be all the above. I don’t know what the reasoning is. Virginia is one of the states that has the lowest foster care rate and the lowest number of kids in foster care, but I would argue that we’re not counting all these kids that are in these alternative caregiving arrangements,” said Reynolds.

“It’s really frustrating. It makes us really frustrated,” he went on to say when asked what he thought about this happening. “There really is not much guidance out there about it, and so once the child is safe in the alternative caregiver’s home, a lot of agencies just sort of leave it alone and close the case.”

The big question: What could happen if there’s no oversight of these diversion cases?

“Well, anything could happen. I mean, again, the safety of the child is at risk. We’ve got varying levels of vetting going on of the relatives,” said Reynolds.

The director told 10 News that in one case, a relative was contacted about some of her family going into foster care. She drove five hours from out of state to pick them up.

“The agency did nothing to vet this,” said Reynolds. “All they did was they called her on the phone and said, ‘Hey, do you have any criminal convictions?’ ‘No,’ ‘Any CPS findings?’ ‘No.’ That’s all they did. They just asked the relative and she was like, ‘You going to do anything more than that? Do you need me to sign any papers?’ ‘No.’”

He said once she got home, the woman had nothing that said she had legal custody, so she couldn’t even enroll them in school.

“The agency did facilitate getting the mother to sign a handwritten Power of Attorney, which helped some,” explained Reynolds.

The kids had special needs. She had to stop working to get them adjusted. But she wasn’t getting any monetary or medical support a foster or kinship family would get. So a few months later, she had to return the kids.

“That’s like one of the worst situations, right? Not every situation’s like that, but that I mean, even worse has happened to children because the process wasn’t there to support the children or the relative caregivers, or the parents,” said Reynolds. “You’ll hear the local Department of Social Services say, ‘Well, it’s not our control because this is a voluntary placement.’ You’re taking the control away from the parents and giving it to all these other people. Well, I beg to differ again, there’s that coercion piece it says ‘Well parents, if you don’t do this, we’re gonna go this route.’ And so they have no other choice. What kind of a choice is that? It’s voluntary, but it’s coerced voluntariness.”

Since judges aren’t involved, kids can be in these arrangements for years and parents can lose custody permanently because there’s not a plan for them to get their kids back.

Reynolds said Virginia has been trying to do something about this for years, but new policies or laws haven’t been able to stick.

Of the many calls and complaints the Office of the Children’s Ombudsman gets, Reynolds said foster care diversion is the number one issue and they are keeping a tally.

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 May about the official launch of the office here.

10 News Anchor Jenna Zibton has been covering foster care and adoption successes and challenges for more than five years. You can see more of her stories here and on 30 Days of Hope every November.

About the Author

You can see Jenna weekday mornings at the anchor desk on WSLS 10 Today from 5-7 a.m. She also leads our monthly Solutionaries Series, where we highlight the creative thinkers and doers working to make the world a better place.

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