As the COVID-19 pandemic begins to wane, with vaccination rates on the rise and state gathering restrictions now fully lifted, Virginia children in need of foster homes are still feeling the effects of the pandemic.
Agencies statewide have seen a decline in families able to foster during the pandemic, and the Charlottesville area has been deeply affected.
DePaul Community Resources is a nonprofit that provides foster care services for children of all ages in Central Virginia. The group also provides independent living services for young adults who have aged out of the foster care system.
“COVID has impacted our ability to reach out to families during the pandemic and work with interested individuals and families wanting to learn more about foster care,” said Hope Robinson, director of foster care and independent living programs at DePaul.
“It’s also impacted our ability to accept placement of children here in the Charlottesville and Albemarle area, because we don’t have enough foster families to place them with,” Robinson said.
This means local children may have to be placed in foster homes outside of the area.
According to area social services departments, Charlottesville had 78 children in foster care as of April 1 and Albemarle County has 98 children in foster care.
According to DePaul, there are roughly 5,300 children in Virginia’s foster care system who are unable to live safely with their birth family and need someone else to care for them.
Approximately 36% of children in foster care are between 13 and 18 years old, and Black children are disproportionately represented in the foster care system, representing 30% of children in Virginia’s foster care system, yet only 22% of the state’s child population.
From February 2020 to February 2021, 406 youth aged out of foster care without permanency. Virginia has fallen back to 50th, last in the nation, for the rate at which youth age out of foster care without a permanent connection in place.
Virginia is also ranked at the bottom in the country when it comes to kinship care — placing children with extended family rather than foster parents.
Robinson said these outcomes disproportionately affect minority communities.
“Children of color are more likely to age out of the foster care system and are more likely to experience low educational and job attainment. They are also more likely to experience homelessness than the general public,” she said.
Robinson said DePaul has noticed that families are less likely to be interested in fostering children of color.
“Our focus will be on recruiting families who are open to fostering children of color, as well as providing education during our pre-service training to families,” she said.
Robinson said it’s also harder to find families who are willing to foster teenagers.
“That’s one of our main focuses, to help potential foster parents recognize that our older youth are in need of foster care,” she said.
Teens who aren’t able to find foster family placements are more likely to struggle to find jobs and housing after they age out of the system, Robinson said. This contributes to high rates of homelessness among young adults who have recently aged out of foster care.
Robinson said that when children can’t secure foster family placements, they typically get sent to residential group home facilities and are less likely to make the connections that will help them succeed and secure employment and housing when they age out.
“It’s important to transition them out from a stable home environment when they turn 18,” Robinson said. “We just recognize that kids still need that adult support [after they age out].”
The crisis extends throughout the state. The Virginia Mercury reported that United Methodist Family Services, one of the state’s largest private foster care agencies, has seen a major decline in parental inquiries — raising concerns over its ability to make new placements.
Nancy Toscano, president and CEO of United Methodist Family Services, told The Mercury that the number of families interested in fostering has gone down by 30% over the last six months compared with the same time period a year ago. That means fewer people will complete the approval process and ultimately be able to accept children into their homes.
“The numbers of kids in our care has gone down as a result,” Toscano said. “Not dramatically, but it catches up. And we end up rejecting referrals that come from the Department of Social Services.”
Toscano described this as a “domino effect” on an already overburdened system.
“When we talk to foster parents, it usually takes them about a year of thinking about it before they pick up that phone and say, ‘Yes, I’m interested,’” Toscano told The Mercury. “That’s where we think that delay is — folks haven’t gone through that consideration period during the pandemic because of all the stressors.”
Robinson said outreach to potential foster parents has become challenging as a result of the pandemic, and DePaul has had to get creative.
“Typically, our crews have attended festivals and events in the local community as part of the recruitment process, or even go and meet with potential foster families in person,” she said.
DePaul now holds webinars for potential foster families on a monthly basis.
“Now, we completely rely on virtual meetings for our recruitment needs, so we’ve done a lot more outreach on Facebook and Instagram as ways to increase our pool,” Robinson said.
The Virginia General Assembly has taken action in response to the crisis that local agencies hope will ease the burden.
In March, Gov. Ralph Northam signed a bill from Sen. Monty Mason, D-Williamsburg, that will provide state-funded financial support to extended family members who take in children.
Previously, relatives received no financial assistance unless they went through the same approval process as foster parents.
Del. Wendy Gooditis, D-Loudoun, also successfully passed a bill that aims to make kinship placements easier and give older children more involvement in their foster care plan.
Robinson said ideal foster parents could be individuals or couples.
“Anyone that is able to be flexible, patient and able to adapt their parenting style to meet the needs of the youth,” Robinson said.
“A lot of youth have experienced some trauma. So we are looking for people who are able to adapt their parenting style,” she said.
Those interested in possibly be a foster parent can visit depaulcr.org for more information.