Raymond R. Ratke | Transforming child welfare in Virginia
Imagine if you could no longer care for your children and that they had to leave your home and be separated from one another. You would want your kids to be in a safe home, close to school and friends, with plenty of support as they adjust to a new family. But for nearly 7,000 children in Virginia’s foster care system who have been separated from their families, these things have never been guaranteed.
Virginia recently launched the Virginia Children’s Services System Transformation to make the kind of future that all parents want for their children a bit more certain for every child. First Lady Anne Holton’s For Keeps initiative started Virginia’s child welfare practices on the right road, and in December 2007 we began an intensive change in the way we provide effective help for at-risk children and their families.
Alex and Jacob (not their real names), for example, entered foster care in 2006 as infants when both parents were incarcerated. Two years later, the parents were due to be released and everyone was nervous. “When my kids left me, they were babies and I knew how to do babies,” the mother said. “Now they are toddlers and I don’t know how to be their parent anymore.”
The local department of social services worked out a program of intensive in-home services and visits for this family, helping to establish routine and parenting direction. Much-needed services were available around the clock. Alex and Jacob went home last Christmas and everyone is doing well with follow-up care. Individualized plans such as Alex and Jacob’s are an important measure for avoiding more emotionally and financially expensive interventions down the road. Virginia is better equipped and more committed to providing this assistance than we have ever been – and families are staying united because of it.
The Transformation works to assure wherever possible that children are moved into permanent family arrangements; that more kids are placed with relatives and foster parents; and that community-based services are in place to help keep families together. Thirteen pilot localities across the state, including Richmond, Henrico and Chesterfield, were among the first to work toward these goals. A variety of strategies and national best practices are already impacting children and families across Virginia.
These include statewide staff training based on a common set of values; recruiting, developing and supporting families for children like Alex and Jacob; managing by data on the actual families, not by anecdote; giving stronger voices to the children and families themselves; and developing a community-based continuum of care for each child.
Maria (not her real name) came to us as a 15-year-old mother with a new baby and no means of support. She spoke only Spanish, and we had no available Spanish-speaking foster families. It appeared that she would have to be placed in a group home away from her community. Unfortunately, a nurturing family environment often does not come along with the higher price tag of such residential care. Instead, a local social worker recalled a middle school Spanish teacher, living with her mom, who had completed training to become a midwife and was open to being a foster mother. After much hard work and many phone calls the social worker secured an apartment, furniture, food and other necessities while this new family established itself.
This kind of detailed approach is proving effective. Richmond’s Department of Social Services has reduced the number of young people in residential facilities and group homes by 37 percent. Total foster care numbers across the Commonwealth are down 8 percent over the last year. Henrico has lowered the number of young people in residential and group homes by 45 percent, while Chesterfield’s total is down an astonishing 58 percent. The Transformation is growing statewide, with more localities improving outcomes for children and families.
Large system reform requires strong public and private partnerships, time and commitment. Yes, we are still at the beginning stages and there are challenges to overcome. But, through sustained leadership, innovative strategies and continued partnerships, we can ensure that all Virginia children will be safe and have a life with a family that cares for them and be on the road to success as an adult.
Raymond R. Ratke is the special advisor to Secretary of Health and Human Resources Marilyn B. Tavenner for Children’s Services for the Commonwealth of Virginia.