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"That determines your journey:" Series of foster care initiatives signed into law by Governor

By: Sara McCloskey

RICHMOND, Va. - Gov. Ralph Northam signed into law major changes to Virginia’s foster care system on Wednesday. To his left, was Carlos Johnson, a Henrico teen who recently aged out of care.

“We moved around so much due to the lights being turned off and stuff,” Johnson explained. “I kind of got used to moving and meeting new people.”

Johnson was put into foster care in 2014, after living with “five kids and two more adults” in a two-bedroom house.  

“We made it work,” he said positively. 

After Johnson was placed in care, he says he had a lot of opportunities like going to baseball games and leaving the state for trips. Today, standing next to the Governor he had a chance to advocate for kids like him.

A recent study by JLARC brought attention to lawmakers issues seen in the foster care system. The report shows in 2016, 54 percent of kids 12 and older in the system phased out without finding a permanent home. That’s more than double the national average.  

“We currently have 700 children in Virginia waiting for forever families,” Gov. Ralph Northam, (D) Virginia, said.

With the Governor’s signature, a series of actions to improve the system became law. These include clearer distinctions between state and local authority for services, help with managing caseloads, a new position within the Department of Social Services to oversee health and safety, and prevention services for kids at risk of entering foster care and their families.

There’s also a new requirement for social services to take more steps to find relatives for children to live with, which is called kinship foster care, as opposed to putting them with a foster family. According to the JLARC report, only 6 percent of children were placed with family members or relatives in 2016, way below the national average of 32 percent.

Overall, the package of bills cost about $4 million in the budget. 

“It’s one thing to pass the bill, it’s another thing to make sure we fully fund what we have to get done,” Sen. Bryce Reeves (R-District 17), one of the bill sponsors, said.

This package of bills was a bipartisan effort, and a number of the lawmakers involved were foster kids or have adopted.

“God commands us to take care of our children. Our children are the cornerstone of everything we do in this world,” Sen. Reeves said. “They’re the future leaders of tomorrow.”

The bill signing ceremony also kicked off a new public-private initiative, called Virginia Fosters, which aims to recruit and support foster families in the Commonwealth, in the hopes of finding more permanent homes for foster children. It's run by Virginia's Kids Belong, and has been tested out in Oklahoma and Tennessee.  

For Johnson, the work in Virginia’s Capitol brings hope that more loving adults will be able to help kids like him.

“Who you surround yourself with in foster care - that determines your journey,” Johnson said.

Johnson is applying to colleges now and hopes to continue supporting other youth. He hopes to go to Virginia Commonwealth University.

The laws will take effect on July 1. 

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