Part of the Intercept ad campaign for foster parents. Courtesy of Intercept Health.

Starting today, you’re likely to see or hear ads – on television, social media and music streaming services – from Intercept Health that make the pitch for why people should sign up to be a foster parent.

Few things happen in a vacuum and this is no exception. This ad campaign comes against a backdrop of issues that usually don’t get much attention – from either government or the news media – but now are starting to get some.

In April, Gov. Glenn Youngkin made what the Virginia Mercury rightly called a “startling announcement”: For one six-month period last year, 162 children in Virginia “spent at least one night in hotels, emergency rooms or local government offices due to a shortage of foster homes and other permanent housing.” (The original reporting said 163 but the state now says the number was really 162.)

In response, Youngkin established a task force – the Safe and Sound Task Force – to address the situation. Less than a month later, Youngkin announced what the Mercury called “a major milestone”: “Over the past weekend, not a single child in Virginia had been forced to spend the night at their local social service department.” That hasn’t necessarily continued. The Mercury reported that two weeks after Youngkin’s announcement the social services director in James City County had told a state advisory team “that a kid in the system had just been released from juvenile detention and didn’t have a home to go back to. In the meantime, the child was sleeping at a local social service agency.”

That social services director said these kinds of examples would keep cropping up until “systematic changes” are made. That’s what Youngkin’s Safe and Sound Task Force is intended to address, and it appears to be making progress. During the same six-month period in 2022, 52 children slept in an office, an emergency room or a hotel because there was no place to go (and only three of those months overlapped with the task force). “As of July 1st,” the task force says in a presentation shared by Youngkin’s office, “it is the exception not the rule for a child to sleep in an office, hotel or ER. It is no longer a widespread challenge in Virginia.”

This sure seems a success story, but that doesn’t mean the larger problem of not having enough foster parents is fixed. One of Youngkin’s budget amendments – which was approved – set aside $4.4 million in general fund dollars (and $291,060 in non-general fund dollars) to address the lack of placements into foster care. I can’t find any media coverage of that, I suspect because those of us in my profession are drawn to conflicts and there’s not much conflict here – although there is plenty of drama behind the scenes, much of it of the traumatic kind.

I recently had occasion to talk with Natalie Handy, CEO of Intercept Health, which has grown from running a single group home in Richmond to a statewide network of 11 group homes, plus provideing lots of other behavioral health services. She’s based in Roanoke and is also a member of the governor’s task force. I asked her how many foster parents the state would have to have to meet the need. She said that’s a simple question with a complicated answer. “It’s not like, if you have a foster parent, that a child can automatically go in there,” she said. It has to be a good fit. A child who has been traumatized by an animal can’t be placed with someone who has pets, for instance. Maybe a foster parent only has room for one child and can’t take in siblings; the state is loath to break those up. Foster parents also move in and out of the system all the time – sometimes they leave because they adopt, sometimes they leave because their circumstances change – so it’s always a moving target. Intercept currently works with 200 foster parents. “We’d love to have 5,000 more parents,” she said. How’s that for startling?

It’s not just a matter of finding more foster parents, either. It’s a matter of finding workers. “I have 30 beds in my group home offline” for lack of staff, she said, “so workforce is a huge issue.” Intercept currently employs 675 people; Handy said she has 137 other positions open. That also limits the ability to place kids, be it in group homes or foster homes.

Here are some more stats, current as of July 1, as per the state’s Department of Social Services:

  • The state had 5,038 children in foster care – be it with foster parents, or institutions or group homes, or some other setting. That number has been pretty consistent for the past decade. Ten years ago this July, the number was 4,896. Two years ago, before the pandemic, it was 5,525. Keep in mind, of course, that while the numbers are roughly similar, these aren’t always the same kids – children are moving in and out of the foster care system all the time, so the cumulative number of children over time is much higher.
  • Most of these kids – 58% – are ages 10 and up. “Thirteen to 18 are the hardest to place,” Handy says. “There’s so much stigma around teens” – yet that’s where the greatest need is. The single biggest age cohort, at 16.08%, is ages 13 to 15. The second biggest, at 15.48%, is 16 to 17.
  • There’s a reason for these age groupings. State stats show “age at last removal from own home” – the single biggest group, 21.14%, is ages 13 to 15, and the second biggest, at 14.55%, is ages 16 through 18.
  • Now for the stat that got my attention: “episodes of removal from own home.” In other words, how many times have the children been removed from their home? The vast majority – 85.07% – were only removed once. But the rest were removed more than once, meaning the state took custody of the kids, then returned them to their parents, and had to repeat the process because something was going on. The percentages get small but the raw numbers are still pretty depressing: 626 kids were taken from their home twice, 106 three times, 18 four times, two five times. What in the world is going on? “People seem to forget that children come into care through no fault of their own,” Handy says. “It’s abuse, neglect, drug abuse” on the part of the parents. And yes, there are stats for that, too.
  • The state stats show that the primary reason the state had to remove a child from the home was parental neglect — 51.29%. The second biggest category – 30.94% – is “parent’s drug abuse.” These can also be overlapping categories; sometimes it’s not just one thing going on. Parental drug abuse can sure lead to parental neglect.
  • So what happens to these children? As of July 1, some 2,758 children were placed in a non-relative foster home, 504 in a foster home with a relative, 280 in a pre-adoptive foster home and 148 in a “trial home visit.” That still leaves 1,348 in some other sort of setting, be it independent living, an institution or a group home. The state records simply show 165 as “unknown,” although that’s like more of a data entry situation with the staff not entering the reason into the state’s system. The 291 in institutions – be it an acute hospital, a residential treatment facility, detention, or group home – aren’t eligible for a foster home but many of the others are. That means there are kids in some group home who could be, ought to be, in a foster home but aren’t because there isn’t one that will take them. That’s what the Intercept ad campaign is aimed at: finding enough foster parents to take these kids in.
  • Why is that important? The state has stats for that, as well. Of the 5,038 kids in the foster system, the official “case plan goal” for only 1,735 of them – 34.4% – is reunification with their family. Another 390 – 7.74% – may go live with other relatives. The rest? A lot will simply “age out” and then they’re on their own.

What happens once foster youth “age out”? The goal of foster care is to make sure kids from unstable home backgrounds “launch” into adulthood successfully. The lack of foster parents makes that harder. This seems to be a subject that is getting more attention. Earlier this year we published a story about the Great Expectations program that helps former foster youth pay for college. Launched at five community colleges in 2008 (Danville, Germanna, J. Sergeant Reynolds, New River and Southside), it today operates at all 23 community colleges thanks to private funding. “It’s just kind of a forgotten group,” said retired coal executive Mike Quillen of Scott County, who has cared for foster children in the past. “There’s not an advocacy for the foster care system other than social services people.”

As horrible as some of these numbers – they’re really all horrible, even if it’s just one – we need to remember that there are real people, real kids, behind all of them. “People tend to forget that these children have witnessed terrible trauma,” Handy says. “They weren’t born bad.”

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.