ROANOKE, Va. – In Virginia, kids are in crisis and put into foster care due to no fault of their own. But they have an advocate. 10 News Anchor Jenna Zibton works tirelessly all year long investigating the challenges the foster care system faces and revealing the solutions so all of us can help. You’ve seen the stories during the WSLS 10 Kids in Crisis series and 30 Days of Hope, where we profile one child who needs a home every day during the month of November.
“This sofa is where we’ve had children actually sleep while we’re furiously trying to find the right home for them,” said Andy Crawford, the Bedford County Director of Social Services as he walked us into the room inside their offices.
A crisis Virginia has never seen before.
“It’s really stressful for everyone,” said Crawford.
Other states have the same problem, but never here.
“If you’re a child, and you’re having to sleep at the Department of Social Services, then you know that we don’t have anywhere else for you to go,” explained Crawford.
Our 10 News investigation, Kids in Crisis, followed the problem for months this year.
“We’re sending Virginian children all over the United States because Virginia facilities and services are inadequate to meet their needs,” said Natalie Elliot Handy, the CEO of Intercept Health, one of the largest private providers.
At the time of our report in May, it was only operating at 60 percent capacity because of staffing issues, something we’re seeing across the foster care system. According to a survey she put out to people serving children in Virginia, staffing, pay or the child’s level of need was among the top issues.
“Some of the solutions that Virginia needs to take a hard look at is around how much we compensate folks for this work,” said Allison Gilbreath, who works with Voices for Virginia’s Children shining a light on foster care issues. “It is commonly known and common practice that other states are willing to pay far more for a placement than an in-state child. So an example would be a child with the exact same case file from Tennessee called a private facility in Virginia says they will pay $1,200 a day for that child, that facility takes them. A local Department of Social Services in Virginia called with an almost identical child but says we are only going to be able to afford $600 a day. They don’t take that child, they take the $1,200 child from Tennessee.”
Back in April, we found 123 children were placed out of state according to the Virginia Department of Social Services.
“It doesn’t make any sense. It honestly just harms children in the long run. And it makes it more difficult for their families to maintain relationships with them and to be able to eventually reunify,” said Gilbreath.
After our stories and conversations with local social workers, Hopetree Family Services in Salem renovated a cottage for temporary emergency housing for children in foster care.
“What we wanted to provide a space that would be very comfortable, that would be very inviting and would have all the comforts of home that they could come and stay with the children until they can find that appropriate placement,” said HopeTree President & CEO, Jon Morris.
HopeTree teamed up with Roanoke City and County DSS along with other organizations to raise over $50,000 to make this project possible.
“It doesn’t solve the problem but it’s a step in the right direction in providing a more normal setting for the child,” said the Director of Roanoke County’s Department of Social Services, Sue Goad.
Another problem 10 News uncovered this year is the safety of children at risk. We learned that thousands of children are being diverted from foster care, and sent to live with family or friends without the proper background checks.
“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. Reynolds told us in May there were about 4,900 kids in foster care, but he believes out-of-home care through social services is double that.
“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,” said 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.
Since judges aren’t involved, kids can be in these arrangements for years and parents can lose custody permanently because there’s no 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.
After our story aired, Reynolds said new discussions started between his office and other leaders around Virginia to resolve the issues we uncovered. He said they’ve had some productive discussions that are still ongoing.
Foster care diversion is one of the significant trends and recurring issues identified in his annual report that just came out at the end of November. That made up 25 percent of the investigations his office did over the last year.
All of this is even more of a reason for WSLS 10 to raise awareness and help in the effort to find homes for the hundreds of children in Virginia. It’s something we’ve done for the last six years through our signature project, 30 Days of Hope.
“The Roanoke Valley is really fortunate to have 30 Days of Hope. No other region has such an impactful program that highlights adoptable kids every year,” said Benjamin Jones, Roanoke County Department of Social Services Supervisor of Foster Care, Adoptions & Resources.
We worked with the Virginia Department of Social Services to feature 35 children in November. The need is so great, we are continuing to share the stories of children who can be adopted in December.
“The notoriety that 30 Days of Hope gives for the children, the viewing area that it reaches, the numbers, I was astonished at how quickly the inquiry started coming in and how major the change was,” said Vernee Mason, the VDSS Adoption program supervisor, who said more than 600 people are interested in foster care and adoption.
Mason talked about some of the messages VDSS is getting, thanks to 30 Days of Hope. “I didn’t realize there were so many children out there, this is a great initiative going on. This is a great thing that you’re doing and we’re getting if they can’t foster or they’re not in a place to foster, how can we help which is always a great thing, how can we help? And I’m always more than willing to point them in a direction.”
She said there were 250 adoptions in this region two years ago and last year that number grew to 266.
“It’s growing more and more because people are seeing the need for it. People are viewing 30 Days of Hope,” said Mason.
There have been incredible success stories to come out of the WSLS initiative. Chelsey and Eric Holland adopted two children after seeing 30 Days of Hope.
“It was like an instant connection. From then on I was 100% in,” said Eric.
Another family also adopted. Ryan Downey with DePaul Community Resources said, “They saw 30 Days of Hope. They were just touched by the need of the kids in the foster care system and they said, ‘I can do this, I can help.’”
Downey said the family went through the approval process, and two sisters moved in. When it became evident they couldn’t live together permanently – the brother of the foster mom took one of the children in so they could still grow up side by side.
Other families are fostering children they never would have thought about.
“You inspired us to foster an older child and now we can’t imagine our little family without him,” said one of the many messages Jenna’s gotten over the years.
“Love watching all of your foster care stories. It was this series last year that pushed us to finally go for it and to choose older kids,” said another message.
Families who are fostering teenagers because of the need they’ve seen, giving Christmas presents to kids we’ve featured, or signing up to support foster families through programs like CarePortal.
“There is always a surge of inquiries about foster and adoption following the annual 30 Days of Hope rollout. It’s really amazing and again, other regions don’t have the same highlight and push and advocacy that we do and we’re really lucky,” said Jones.
If you have questions about foster care/adoption, contact the VDSS Division of Family Services 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 qualifications, cost, and training required in this link.