Virginia does such a poor job of supervising local foster care programs that the state doesn’t have a list of foster parents currently in the system, according to a new legislative study.

The study by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission finds that the state’s 120 foster care programs don’t do a good job of recruiting foster parents, especially relatives; working to reunite children with birth parents; or finding them permanent homes.

As a result, Virginia relies too heavily on institutional care that is often clinically unnecessary, as well as costly, while children in the system have trouble getting their medical and mental health needs met, according to the study by the General Assembly’s watchdog agency.

“This is a totally devastating report,” said Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, one of 10 legislators who attended the commission meeting on Monday in snowbound Richmond.

“These are children we have taken from their families,” she said. “They are now our children. We have to take care of them as best we can, and that’s obviously not happening.”

Too many cases

The study found that foster care workers in localities handle too many cases — especially in Richmond — and don’t ensure adequate medical and mental health treatment of children in foster care, even though those needs are often greater because of the children’s history of trauma.

Statewide, 15 percent of caseworkers handle more than 15 foster care cases at a time, but they account for 31 percent of all cases — 1,653 children. In Richmond, nine caseworkers handle more than 15 cases at a time.

Those caseloads have consequences, according to the JLARC staff report, which found that “higher foster care caseloads are associated with lower rates of physical and dental exams, fewer in-home visits by caseworkers, and fewer contacts between children and their birth families each month.”

Duke Storen, commissioner of the Virginia Department of Social Services, acknowledged the flaws outlined in the report and accepted the JLARC staff’s 34 recommendations, noting that the department already is trying to address problems found by the study.

“The findings in this report are concerning,” Storen told the legislative commission. “They’ve been on our radar.”

Turnover, accountability

Local social services departments face major challenges with “stability and quality of casework” because of high stress and turnover of their foster care staff, he said. “The fact is we’ve got a retention problem, we’ve got a recruiting problem and we’ve got a training problem.”

Storen also acknowledged the need for greater accountability at the local and state levels.

“We need to do a better job in working with local boards of social services,” he said.

Howell and House Appropriations Chairman Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, expressed concern that the system is too unwieldy because it is administered by 120 local programs with state oversight that the study found to be ineffective.

“It’s very, very unfortunate for the children in this system,” Jones said.

Storen said the state is number one in the country for helping kids stay out of foster care “on the front end.” He expects help next year from a federal law that will allow states to use foster care money for preventive programs that, for example, could pay for treatment of families suffering from substance abuse issues without taking the children into foster care.

Parents’ drug abuse fuels increase

Foster care placements had declined steadily from a high of 6,609 children in 2006-07 to 4,373 in mid-2013, but they’ve risen to 5,339 in the middle of this year. Drug abuse by parents has fueled the increase, accounting for 71 percent of foster care placements two years ago. Most of the children going into foster care are younger than 12 years old.

Once children are in foster care, Virginia’s local-administered, state-supervised system has failed them, JLARC staff found. Caseworkers don’t always visit children at least once a month, or, in a small percentage of cases, ensure that basic safety requirements are met in foster homes.

On a regional level, state social services staff have documented “problems with frequency or quality of visits” in 14 local departments, but they don’t elevate the case reviews to the department’s central office in Richmond or notify the commissioner of “significant safety concerns.”

The problems are not new. “Statewide problems with ensuring the health and safety of Virginia children in foster care have been known since 2004,” according to the report, which recommends that the General Assembly create a new position for a director of foster care health and safety to ensure those concerns are addressed.

Finding relatives

The report also faults the department for placing too few children with relatives — just 6 percent in fiscal 2016 — while relying too heavily on group homes or other types of residential care better suited for children in need of intensive supervision and treatment.

Part of the problem is lack of effort by staff to find relatives, and part of it is the reluctance of birth parents to disclose information about relatives, the study finds. However, the Virginia Department of Social Services has “no plan, funding or staff to recruit foster parents, despite well-known longstanding problems.”

The department doesn’t even have a list, at the state level, of all foster parents currently working at the local level, a shortcoming the report says the assembly should require be corrected. It also recommends that the department add one person in the state central office and five in the department’s regional offices who would be responsible for implementing a statewide plan for recruiting and retaining foster parents.

The report also said lawmakers should consider legal standards for the state to intervene with local social services departments that aren’t delivering adequate services to children in foster care.

In the past, the state has taken “a hands-off approach to supervision” of local social services departments that aren’t doing their jobs for children in foster care, the report said. The state has informed the local agencies “with no recourse if the request is ignored.”

In fact, state commissioners of social services “have never exercised authority to intervene when local departments do not provide adequate foster care services,” JLARC staff said.

Storen promised that will change if he gets the statutory authority and budget help he needs from lawmakers.

“I’m going to move forward to exercise more authority,” he said after the meeting.

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