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Advocates Worry Foster Children Left Behind By State Budget

Capitol building
Virginia State Capitol. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/ VPM News)

*Clara Haizlett reported this story

Leading up to the pandemic, lawmakers and advocates were making significant strides to improve Virginia’s foster care system. But now, advocates say they’re back to where they started. 

Allison Gilbreath is the policy and programs director at Voices for Virginia’s Children. 

“It's not necessarily that anything extraordinarily new is happening within foster care,” Gilbreath said. “It's just, we hadn't even gotten the band aid on correctly in the first place. And then this happened.” 

In 2018, Virginia’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission performed a year-long study on the foster care system. The report revealed systemic issues in Virginia’s foster care system, including a lack of adherence to “basic safety requirements.” Gilbreath says the findings were “devastating” to the General Assembly. 

In the following 2019 legislative session, the first-ever bipartisan Foster Care Caucus was formed to address issues in the system. That momentum continued into 2020, when the General Assembly planned a historic investment into the foster care system of  nearly $90 million

That money would have gone toward prevention services for families, which aim to keep children out of foster care entirely. The 2020 proposed budget also significantly invested in kinship care and increased wages for case workers. 

In response to COVID-19, however, over $60 million was stripped from the budget, leaving only $24.5 million in funding. 

“There are so many demands, from the economy, to childcare, to figuring out how to reopen schools, that the child welfare system really hasn’t received the attention that it deserves in order for legislators to respond accordingly,” Gilbreath said. 

The governor's recent budget proposal restores some funding for foster care, about $16 million for positions in the Department of Social Services and $14 million for prevention services. But Gilbreath says she hoped there would be more. 

“It can be easy to be a bit more conservative right now with our budget given all of the unknowns,” Gilbreath said. “But if we continue to make small advancements here or there, we’ll see small improvements. And overall, we'll continue to see families who are left behind and we’ll continue to pay the costs on the back end.” 

Gilbreath says Voices will advocate for increased funding for foster care in the upcoming legislative session. They’re also requesting increased funding for the Family First Prevention Services Act, to which the federal government has pledged a 50% match. 

Prevention services include mental health resources and skills based training for parents. She says those options are especially needed now, as they’re seeing an increase in parental substance abuse and economic hardship throughout the pandemic. 

“We want to ensure that services are scaled up across the commonwealth so that kids and families can receive what services they need,” Gilbreath said. 

Gilbreath says her organization will continue virtual advocacy days during the upcoming legislative session, making sure legislators hear from children and families directly experiencing the foster care system. 

The General Assembly will review the governor’s proposal when they convene for the legislative session, beginning in January.