The Virginia General Assembly has passed legislation that would make a myriad of changes to the laws governing the Virginia Department of Social Services (VDSS). The measure comes after last year’s review of the state’s foster care network by the non-partisan Joint Legislative and Audit Review Commission (JLARC), which found that VDSS is one of the worst systems in the country in some aspects.

The 124-page report explained that basic safety requirements have not always been followed, case workers were carrying too burdensome of a load, children were not receiving required health screenings, and a minuscule amount of children in foster care were actually placed with relatives. Moreover, JLARC found that solving the problems surrounding the care of Virginia’s foster children required an expansion of state-level policies to provide more oversight.

During the 2019 session in Richmond, lawmakers headed off a list of alterations to rectify the woeful conditions within the Commonwealth’s foster care network.

The bill in question, S.B. 1339, introduced by State Senator Bryce Reeves (R-Spotslyvania), passed unanimously in both the House of Delegates and Senate.

As stated in the legislation, the provisions will become effective if included in the 2019 Appropriation Act.

Under the bill, the commissioner of VDSS will be directed to develop and implement a corrective action plan for foster care services of a local board – even allowing the commissioner to assume temporary control. This would occur if the board in question has either failed to provide proper foster care services, make placement and removal decisions in accordance with applicable laws or regulations, or has taken any action that poses a substantial risk to the health, safety, or well-being of any child under its supervision and control.

The commissioner would also be directed to establish a confidential hotline to receive reports and complaints from foster parents and others regarding violations of laws and regulations. As well, a “more reliable, structured, and comprehensive case review and quality improvement process” would be implemented to monitor and improve foster care services provided by local boards and the statewide social services division.

A caseload standard will be implemented that limits the amount of foster care cases that may be assigned to each foster care caseworker, which will be reviewed annually on the basis of the time and work necessary to effectively manage each case. According to the bill’s impact statement, 15 cases per caseworker will be used as the standard.

Minimum staffing levels in regional offices for foster care and adoption services will also be mandated. Currently, the five regional offices throughout the Commonwealth each have a staff of two program consultants and will consequently need two more per office for a total of 10 new positions. The bill requires that all five regional offices have no fewer than four staff members.

Each local board will also seek out kinship care options to keep children out of foster care – if it is in the child’s best interests. Searches for relatives eligible to serve as a “kinship foster parent” shall be conducted at the time any child enters foster care, and every year until placement is determined, with a more stringent review of placement options for children that have been in the system for over 24 months.

Furthermore, a “foster care health and safety director position” would be created within VDSS to provide better oversight and maintain the standards necessary to promote the health, safety, and wellness of each child in Virginia’s foster care system.