Finding foster children homes instead of sleeping on office couches, hotels

Foster Care: Kids in Crisis is a 10 News investigation looking into several aspects of the Virginia foster care system

ROANOKE, Va.Foster Care: Kids in Crisis is a continuing 10 News investigation looking into several aspects of the Virginia foster care system. You can see those stories here.

A crisis we’ve never seen in Virginia: foster children sleeping in offices and hotel rooms because there’s no other option.

We have an update on the big goal of an end to that practice by July 1.

“It is now the exception, not the rule in Virginia, where kids are sleeping in an office and ER, or a hotel,” said Janet Kelly, who leads the Safe and Sound Task Force and special advisor to the governor.

The task force launched in April. WSLS 10 has covered the issue extensively, with multiple stories since May.

“We were able to reach a 10-day stretch in June where we did not have any kids sleeping in an office and ever since then, it has been very sporadic,” said Kelly.

We checked the numbers. Kelly said there’s been an 89-percent decrease. An average of 27 kids a month last year slept in an office, hotel or ER and it’s now an average of three kids a month.

VDSS said from July 1 to Aug. 25 of this year, seven children have been displaced for at least one night for a total of a combined 79 nights. One of those kids stayed in a social service office for 20 days.

There’s nothing like the story of these individual kids to keep you motivated and to keep you pushing that momentum forward.

Dr. Alyssa Ward, the Behavioral Health Clinical Director of the Virginia Medicaid program

Ward is one of the many people who sat on calls to try and find places for these kids.

The Governor’s office and the following four state agencies were part of the calls:

  • Department of Medical Assistance Services
  • Virginia Department of Social Services
  • Children’s Services Act (CSA) and the Office of Children’s Services
  • Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services

“We met on mostly on Zoom and talked in depth about each kid’s case,” said Kelly. “We were very careful to make sure that we were considering all the factors that may have been overlooked. We got into the weeds on what was actually best for the child, not just where a bed might be available, but what was best for the child. We made personal phone calls to providers and approached this in a creative way that I don’t think had been previously employed.”

Ward said they’ve gotten creative with looking at things they might not have traditionally paid for or options that may not have been considered.

“What exactly can we do, for example, for a family to take this kid in? Are there additional wraparound supports that we can offer that we might not traditionally be able to pay for, that we may be able to make work with some flexible funds? Or for our provider, thinking about what additional supports might make it safer for the youth to remain at a congregate setting for a short period of time. So thinking beyond the normal constraints of treatment plans and more unique to the needs of each individual child,” said Ward.

She added that they aim to have this trickle down to the local level and have individual social service workers and offices come up with similar, creative solutions to keep children out of hotels and off couches in their offices.

It’s really been one of the best examples of good governance that I have experienced since coming to state government. We’ve really been able to dedicate our time together to being creative, having the license to be creative to think outside of the box and to work really directly and intimately with local government to find solutions for individual kids.

Dr. Alyssa Ward, the Behavioral Health Clinical Director of the Virginia Medicaid program

Ward said as she’s talked to other states, this could be a solution to the crisis across the country.

“There began to be kind of a more national conversation, state to state conversation, about how folks were managing it, what policy levers they were pulling, to find options for these kids,” said Ward. “I will say Virginia is the only state in these conversations who has had such a robust task force that has brought all of these agencies together and put the kids really at the center. So other states are definitely looking to replicate what we’ve been doing.”

Ward believes this opened up a bigger, wider conversation about community mental health and the needs of kids in Virginia.

That means more changes could be coming.

Getting every child a place to stay was just phase one and now they’re moving on to the next phase.

What that looks like and why it could mean a big shift in the way group facilities operate, in our next story.

Jenna Zibton has been reporting on foster care and adoption challenges and successes in Virginia for more than five years. 30 Days of Hope highlights the need every November. You can see those stories here.

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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