Editorial: Fostering Connections, Faltering

Editorial: Fostering Connections, Faltering

Why are federal dollars acceptable for roads, but not for helping foster children?

Stand by, because it is going to take a village to raise these children.While there is plenty of competition for the title “most vulnerable,” foster children are certainly among them.

In Fairfax County right now, there are more than 240 children in foster care. There is no benign way to end up in foster care. Foster children are victims of abuse and/or neglect significant enough for them to be removed from their families. On Tuesday, April 29, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors announced that May is Foster Care and Foster Family Recognition Month.

Ironically, May, 2015 could be a month of uncertainty for older foster children in many places in Virginia because of a failure in the Virginia General Assembly.

About 50 foster children a year “age out” of the foster care system in Fairfax County. There are children who may have spent much of their lives in foster care, and reach the age of majority while they are still in foster care, without being reunited with their families or being adopted.

“The research shows that our youth who have been in foster care are extremely traumatized,” said Carl E. Ayers, director of the Virginia Division of Family Services. “Children who have aged out of foster care are much more likely to be homeless, to end up in psychiatric hospitals, to end up in jail, to be young parents, to be on public assistance and just in general have higher rates of poverty. If you can think of a negative outcome, that’s what we see [at high rates] with foster children who age out.”

But right now, about 150 young people between 18-21 who are receiving foster care services in Virginia, with as many as 50 of them here in Fairfax County, are discovering that because the General Assembly failed to pave the way for Federal “Fostering Connections” funding, they could be aging out sooner than they expected.

In 2008, President George Bush signed the Fostering Connections Act that gives states the ability to use federal dollars for children who were in foster care up until the age of 21.

In Virginia, the General Assembly passed in 2014 a plan for implementation that required legislation in 2015 session. But that bill died in committee, and Virginia Family Services has begun the process of informing local agencies, like Fairfax County Department of Family Services, that once a foster child turns 18, they must be transitioned out of foster care.

By spending a little over $3 million, the state could have gained more than $10 million in federal money to help these emerging adults at a critical moment. Savings to localities would have been more than $3 million.

But instead, foster children 18 or older will need to have services transitioned. Ayers says the department will work with local agencies to be sure that none ends up homeless, no one ends up in the hospital. But for youth in foster care 18 or over, a new plan will have to be worked out, and each such youth will have to deal with one more uncertainty.

“It is very, very important that no one is turned on the street,” said Ayers, citing specific instructions that local agencies contact him personally if they are having trouble identifying services for any of the youth being transitioned.

Localities got the word via a “broadcast” memo on April 15, and are still sorting out what it all means.

In Fairfax County, the goal is for youth who are currently in foster homes to be able to stay in them by shifting how they are served, but there will certainly be a financial impact.

“With this being so new, our immediate step was to see exactly which kids will be affected, timelines and expectations,” said Nannette Bowler, director of Fairfax County Family Services. “We’ll scramble and do an assessment on all these children to figure out how we can support them given what has occurred.

“We’re going to have … to look any avenue that we can to be sure these children are not derailed.”