By Alfred S. Regnery
Rappahannock County has too many children in foster care — far too many. Rappahannock’s foster children stay in foster care for too long a time, too many are in institutions outside the county instead of being with caring families and the cost to taxpayers is far too high.
Virginia has one of the lowest rates of children in foster care of in the U.S. — about 2.6 for every 1,000 residents under age 18. Most of our surrounding counties, according to available Virginia Department of Social Services and U.S. Census statistics, are closely in line with the state average: Fauquier, with 44 foster children and an under-18 population of about 16,000, has 2.8 per thousand; Loudoun and Warren each have less than 1; Fairfax, with its diverse population, has a few over 1 per thousand; and neighboring Culpeper has 3.5.
But bucolic Rappahannock? If the county were anywhere near the state average there would be four foster children. Instead there were, as of mid-January, 22 — and a high of 28 during the past year. With an under-18 population of 1,450, Rappahannock’s rate is 16 per thousand, or more than six times the state average, and close to the highest of any county in Virginia.
And it is not only the number now in care that should be of concern, but the rate of growth: The number of foster children has dropped by about 40 percent across both the U.S. and Virginia in the last several years. “We had five or six kids in foster care 10 years ago,” county supervisor Chris Parrish told me. “But in the last several years there has been an explosion, mostly drug and alcohol related.” Indeed, Rappahannock has seen its number double since just 2009.
And the cost? Total expenditure in the county for caring for foster children and their families last year came to about $653,000, or about $24,000 per case, split about 60-40 between state and county funds. Counting the contribution from the state, foster care in Rappahannock cost the equivalent of about 5 percent of the county’s non-school budget.
Out of all those children in the county’s care, only four, according to Bev Dunford, Rappahannock’s director of social services, are placed in the county in regular foster homes. The rest are either in group homes, treatment foster care homes or residential placements outside the county.
The long-term cost to society, of so many foster children, however, is the true scandal. A recent article in Bloomberg News related that by the time they were 25, more than half of foster care “alumni” were homeless; 80 percent of the men had been arrested and 64 percent incarcerated (versus 9 percent for the general population), and 70 percent of the women were on public assistance. Only 60 percent had graduated from high school and 4 percent had college degrees; fully 70 percent were unemployed. An HHS study estimated that more than 60 percent of girls caught up in the sex-trafficking industry had been recruited out of foster group homes.
So what is going on here, why does Rappahannock have this problem, why does it cost so much, and can anything be done?
Most children are in foster care as a result of abuse and neglect, and are only taken from their families after every effort have been made by social workers and others to keep the child at home. According to Dunford, drugs and alcohol abuse are almost always involved, and are almost always at the root of the problem. Poverty and unemployment, broken and single-parent families are also major contributors.
Rappahannock suffers from the same cultural pathologies as the rest of the country, much of it resulting from the unintended consequences of years of liberal efforts at social engineering, the influence of Hollywood and the pop culture generally.
Family structure has come off the rails over the past several decades, particularly among the working and the lower middle class. Fifty years ago, 6 percent of American children were born out of wedlock; today 41 percent are. Welfare benefits have soared during that time, increasingly serving as a substitute for an employed husband.
According to the Census Bureau, children raised in single-parent homes are four times more likely to be living in poverty than reared by married parents of the same education level. And those children are far more likely to suffer from a broad array of social and behavioral problems — the sort of problems that often lead to foster care.
Further, mediating institutions such as churches and religious institutions, voluntary associations and close-knit neighborhoods which were the backbone of a civil society have been under relentless attack from government bureaucracies, social do-gooders, politicians and the courts.
Finally are the inherent problems of the foster care system itself. A lengthy study on foster care published by the Heritage Foundation in March, 2011 concluded that foster care suffers from “bureaucracies that are unfriendly to prospective parents and caregivers; juvenile and family courts that fail to make timely decisions on permanency; state agencies that are averse to working with the private sector, especially faith-based communities; decision makers that adhere to various ideologies and biases over children’s best interest; a culture of hopelessness regarding the adoption of older children; a maze of complex federal rules and reporting requirements that micromanage states; and state child and family services that are not held accountable for poor performance.”
But Rappahannock suffers from a number of problems which are unique, some of its own making.
Rappahannock’s demographics militate against the sort of family that will take in or adopt foster children. The county is largely populated by either reasonably affluent people who have made their money elsewhere, or people in the lower end of the economic scale who live in or near the poverty level, and the median age of residents is about 10 years older than statewide. There are also few opportunities for middle-class jobs here. Accordingly there are simply not enough young families — the people most likely to become foster parents, to manage volunteer religious social service organizations and all the other things normal in civil society.
Because such a high percentage of Rappahannock’s foster children are in institutions instead of with families, they are far less likely to be adopted, often spending years instead of months before returning to their own homes or being adopted or simply turning 18 and ageing out of care. According to County Administrator John McCarthy, about half of Rappahannock’s foster children are placed in therapeutic foster care — a higher level of care when mental health, medical, dental or nutrition services are needed.
But, McCarthy told me, such a high level of care is often not required for the particular case but because of a lack of foster families, it is often the only alternative. But it is also much more expensive. A traditional foster parent is paid between $350 and $800 a month to take in a child. Institutional therapeutic care can cost thousands of dollars a month, and a larger share — about 60 rather than 40 percent — is borne by the county rather than by the state of Virginia.
Permanent adoptions are also rare here — in 2013 there were only three adoptions in the county, despite a spirited statewide year-long campaign, known as “Virginia Adopts” initiated by former Gov. Bob McDonnell, that resulted in 1,000 foster children being adopted across the state into permanent homes.
Adoption is usually the best remedy for a foster child, and according to Tom Atwood, a member of the Virginia Board of Social Services, there are at least as many families in the state looking for foster children to adopt as there are foster children wanting to be adopted. But adoption is difficult and requires strong leadership to accomplish, particularly to overcome a process that is often cumbersome, bureaucratic, expensive and slow, and often discouraged by liberal social workers, family court judges and child advocates who resist taking children from their natural parents for any reason. The result? There are countless foster children waiting for a permanent adoptive parent and potential adoptive parents waiting to adopt a child, all caught up in the bureaucracy while nothing happens.
So what is to be done? In some states — Georgia for one — the problem has been alleviated by local churches stepping forward with volunteers to serve as advocates for children in foster care, to recruit professionals to donate services to them and to support the families who do take in these children. Particularly for those kids who “age out” of foster care, and are turned back from the group home with no family, an advocate or volunteer could provide the care and love absent in a young person’s life.
Perhaps such an effort is what Rappahannock needs.
Regnery was previously president and publisher of Regnery Publishing Inc. and is now a publishing consultant and serves on numerous nonprofit boards. During the Reagan Administration he was the administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice at the Justice Department. He lives in Rappahannock County.