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Budget Brings Mixed News for Foster Children, Advocates Say

State Capitol
Virginia lawmakers have released their proposed budget amendments, which advocates say make some positive commitments toward foster children and their families but still come up short. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

*Clara Haizlett reported this story

The Virginia House and Senate have released their proposed amendments to the two-year state budget. That includes their suggested funding for child welfare, which advocates say contains both good and bad news for children and families in foster care.

The House and Senate kept all of the funding the governor proposed, about $16 million for positions in the Department of Social Services and $14 million for prevention services, which help keep children out of foster care entirely. But Allison Gilbreath with Voices of Virginia’s Children says they were hoping for more support.

“The reality of that is, that really wasn't enough to begin with,” Gilbreath said. “And the House and Senate didn't go very much far beyond where we started.”

In 2020, the General Assembly planned to invest a historic amount into the foster care system, nearly $90 million. It was a huge win for foster care advocates, after years of lobbying for increased support for children and families in the child welfare system. 

But in response to COVID-19, over $60 million was stripped from that budget, leaving only $24.5 million in funding for child welfare. 

The governor’s proposed budget restored some funding, but Gilbreath says she had hoped the General Assembly would pledge additional support to the child welfare system. 

The House and the Senate budget both included about $4.5 million to increase caseworker salaries by about 20% - a change Gilbreath says has been in the works for the last three years. 

“The foster care workforce is really struggling, and has been struggling for a long time,” she said.

According to Voices for Virginia’s Children, 61% of caseworkers quit within their first year. Gilbreath says salaries have a lot to do with that.

At this year’s foster care and kinship care youth advocacy day, Gilbreath says young people strongly advocated for an increase in caseworker salaries. She says they know better than anyone why it’s important: When a young person has multiple caseworkers, it’s more difficult to find a permanent, stable home.

People on zoom call
A picture from the virtual advocacy day with youth meeting with Del. Karrie Delaney (D-Fairfax) and staff. One youth advocate, Eva, said, “we’ve seen enough, we don’t want any other kid to go through what we went through.” (Screenshot provided by Voices of Virginia's Children)

While Gilbreath says she’s happy some financial support increased for caseworkers, she cites salaries as just one aspect of foster care workforce issues. She says many caseworkers in Virginia are dealing with fifteen or more cases at one time.

“In order to do your job effectively, having more than 15 cases on your caseload is too many,” Gilbreath said.

With fifteen cases, a caseworker might be responsible for anywhere from fifteen to thirty plus children. Gilbreath says that’s too much and argues it contributes to case worker burnout.

The proposed budget also included funding for the state-funded Kinship Guardianship Assistance Program, which helps children in foster care stay connected to their relatives.

Additionally, the House and Senate approved a process for extending foster care payments during the COVID-19 pandemic for youth who turn 21 in foster care. Gilbreath says that way kids who are aging out of the system still have a safety net amid the pandemic.

While the proposed budget does address some concerns, Gilbreath says it doesn’t address everything advocates would like to see, especially in response to COVID-19.

“We wish we would have [seen] more investments in prevention, more investments in child welfare overall,” she said. “But this is what we are working with right now.”

Voices had hoped the General Assembly would increase funding for the Family First Prevention Services Act, to which the federal government had pledged a 50% match. Prevention services include things like mental health resources and skills-based training for parents, in efforts to keep children out of foster care in the first place. 

Gilbreath says those options are especially needed throughout the pandemic, as parental substance abuse and economic hardship are on the rise. 

According to Gilbreath, child welfare issues sometimes take longer to manifest than more immediate needs. And although it might be another year or so before they have data about how children have been impacted by the pandemic, she says they still need support and attention.

“While children are resilient, we have to put in as much support as we can for children and families who are navigating the child welfare system while also navigating a pandemic at the same time,” she said.

Gilbreath says Voices for Virginia’s Children are encouraging members of the public to contact their legislators to increase child welfare funding in the budget. The General Assembly will finalize its proposal and send it back to the governor at the end of the session.