New legislation brings aid to family members caring for relatives’ children

Leah Small | 7/4/2024, 6 p.m.
For decades, Virginia has ranked poorly among states for providing financial support for kinship carers — grandparents, aunts, uncles and …
Vicki Lightfoot stands by the front door with Maurice and Marie while waiting for the other grandchildren, Alysha and Corey, to finish getting ready for school. File photo by Hadley Chittum/VCIJ

For decades, Virginia has ranked poorly among states for providing financial support for kinship carers — grandparents, aunts, uncles and other family members raising children who are their relatives. And a critical state report found many social services departments in Virginia have failed to provide enough oversight and protection for children in the care of their relatives.

Starting July 1, bipartisan legislation signed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin tackles some of these problems by establishing an aid program and protective guidelines for kinship care families.

Under the new initiative, called the Parental Child Safety Placement Program, caseworkers must prioritize placing children with relatives, continue child welfare checks and make appropriate efforts to reunify children with parents when safe. Lawmakers have budgeted $16 million over two years to provide monthly stipends to kinship care providers for the cost of raising these children. The amount of assistance families can receive will be based on income, with details to be determined ahead to the program’s expected January 2025 start date.

Child welfare advocates have long pushed for more oversight and support for children in kinship care. The new state program represents “a positive and much-needed evolution in Virginia’s foster care prevention efforts,” writes Allison Gilbreath, head of policy for Voices for Virginia’s Children.

By prioritizing kinship placements and ensuring comprehensive support for both the child and their family of origin, the new program will “contribute to a more robust and compassionate child welfare system,” she said.

The legislation seeks to bolster a foster care system consistently ranked among the worst in the nation for reuniting children with parents and providing resources for family caregivers. About 5,000 Virginia children are in the foster care system, costing the state about $300 million annually.

The new program lowers eligibility standards for aid, which could provide assistance to more families. Under the program, a child must be in the custody of a relativeby court order and voluntarily placed in the relative’s care by parents. The child’s local department of social services must document that the child is at risk of removal.

Children living with loving and safe relatives have better and safer emotional and social lives than children placed with strangers in foster care, child welfare experts say. Kinship caregivers also relieve the state’s overburdened foster care system, stressed by drug epidemics that continue to tear families apart. Parental drug abuse is now the second leading cause, behind neglect, for children entering foster care.

An investigation by the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism at WHRO, published at vcij.org, in February, probed why Virginia lags so far behind other states in kinship care.

Relatives caring for children in Virginia are far less likely than caregivers in other states to have help from the foster care system for child care, counseling, grocery bills and other needs. About 12% of the children in Virginia’s foster care system live with relatives and receive support from the system, state data shows, far below the national rate of 33%.

Part of the reason why Virginia has a low number of relative foster carers is that caseworkers shoulder such large workloads that they fail to inform relatives of the benefits available to them, a state agency’s investigation found. The failure to properly inform caregivers was so prevalent that the state passed a law in 2012 requiring caseworkers to notify kinship care families that they were eligible for foster care benefits.

Most kinship carers are grandparents who unexpectedly fill the role of parents later in life and are often retired and on fixed incomes, said Sen. Barbara Favola (D-Arlington), who authored the legislation.

“We have to acknowledge that it is costly to raise a child, and oftentimes it’s the grandparents who are stepping up,” Favola said. “Here they are, collecting social security, and many of them are lower- to middle-income. And they just didn’t expect to be raising a child when they were in their 70s.”

Under the new program, kinship families would enter into an agreement with the local department of social services to receive financial support and continued case management if needed. Caseworkers must identify to parents available support programs, including parenting classes and substance abuse counseling. Caseworkers must also visit homes to assess living conditions and ensure eligibility.

This story was originally published by the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism at WHRO.