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Northam touts new foster care partnership, legislation to improve system

By MEL LEONOR Richmond Times-Dispatch Mar 27, 2019

Democrats and Republicans alike stand behind Gov. Northam as he signs various bills designed to improved Virginia's foster care system.

Gov. Ralph Northam on Wednesday touted the launch of a public-private partnership, Virginia Fosters, that will seek to boost recruitment of foster families and improve supports for the state’s overburdened foster care system.

The governor also announced his signing this week of measures to start reform of the state’s foster care system.

Northam said his administration will have a stake in the new initiative with the appointment of a Virginia Fosters coordinator that will work out of the office of Health Secretary Daniel Carey. The position will be funded through a $100,000 appropriation currently in the state budget.

“We have made tremendous strides in improving our foster care system with this legislation, but we also know that the challenges we have did not come about overnight and cannot be solved in one General Assembly Session or by government alone,” Northam said during an event at U-Turn Sports Performance Academy in Henrico County.

“Each one of us has a role to play in giving Virginia’s most vulnerable children an opportunity to grow and thrive.”

Virginia Fosters will be backed by Virginia's Kids Belong, the state affiliate of America’s Kids Belong, an organization that has launched similar public-private partnerships to address ailing foster care systems in Oklahoma and Tennessee. Janet Kelly, who served as secretary of the commonwealth in Gov. Bob McDonnell’s administration, is one of the founders of America’s Kids Belong and President of Virginia's Kids Belong.

Kelly said during the launch Wednesday that the campaign will work to connect children in the foster care system, families at risk of losing their children to the system, and foster care families with “wrap-around” supports like food and child care.

Those goods and services will be provided through a combination of public support, as well as through private entities such as businesses, churches and community groups.

Carlos Johnson, 18, who was previously in the state’s foster care system, emceed the event.

“Had this event happened 10 years ago, a lot of kids in foster care would have been better off, including myself,” he told the audience.

Virginia lawmakers earlier this month approved $3.7 million in new funding to jump-start reforms of the state’s foster care system, months after a damning report from the legislature’s watchdog, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, detailed “avoidable risks” facing children in the government’s custody.

The watchdog found that state and local agencies do not consistently follow “basic safety requirements,” putting children at risk. For example, child welfare agencies are falling behind on safety reviews of the homes where children are placed, and in some cases, children are going without required monthly visits by caseworkers. Many children are also missing required health screenings.

The legislation Northam signed this week seeks to expand the preventive services offered to Virginia families, reduce the number of children placed in group homes and increase the number of children placed in the care of a relative.

The legislation will fund a new director-level position within the Department of Social Services to oversee the health and safety of children in the state’s care. The bill will also fund staffing increases at the regional level meant to boost oversight of local agencies and foster care services.

Lawmakers also gave heightened authority to the social services commissioner to step in when local child welfare agencies display significant shortcomings.

Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania, who sponsored the broadest foster care reform bill, attended Wednesday’s event, along with the sponsors of related legislation, including Sens. Monty Mason, D-Williamsburg, and Barbara Favola, D-Arlington; and Dels. Chris Peace, R-Hanover; Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William; David Reid, D-Loudoun; Richard “Dickie” Bell, R-Staunton; and Emily Brewer, R-Suffolk.

All stood behind Northam during the ceremonial signing.

Mason and Brewer chaired a newly formed Foster Care Caucus, which will continue its work on unaddressed issues highlighted by JLARC. Among them is the large caseload that burdens many caseworkers in the state.

The event drew prominent officials from both parties. House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights; Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk; Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond; and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney also attended.

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