There’s a foster care crisis — or at least a very big problem — in Rappahannock County, in the estimation of some public officials and others who are concerned enough to want to do something about it.
An alarm bell went off after a column in the March 6 issue of the Rappahannock News titled “Rappahannock has too many children in foster care.” In that article, county resident Al Regnery wrote that while Virginia has one of the lowest rates of children in foster care in the U.S. — about 2.6 for every 1,000 residents under the age of 18 — Rappahannock County had 16 per 1,000 over the past year, while Fauquier had 2.8 and Culpeper had 3.5.
The rate of growth of children in foster care in Rappahannock has doubled since 2009, Regnery continued. “We had five or six kids in foster care 10 years ago, but in the last several years there has been an explosion, mostly drug and alcohol related,” added Stonewall-Hawthorne supervisor Chris Parrish. (Children can be ordered removed from their home by the local court for their own safety if the home situation warrants it.)
That’s not the only problem, however.
A group of public officials and citizens, including Regnery, have met twice in the past month at the county courthouse to review the problem and what can be done about it, and are concerned with the fact that there are only two foster families in Rappahannock and 25 foster children. While those families are caring for five children, the other 20 have been placed with families or group homes as far away as Winchester and Richmond.
The group has determined that a public information campaign is needed to bring attention to the problem — hopefully inspire more volunteers for foster parents or help in other ways. The group includes Social Services director Beverly Dunford, whose office administers the county’s foster care service, county administrator John McCarthy, Parrish and community members, some of whom are members of the Knights of Columbus at St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Washington.
At the most recent meeting (June 4), the group considered a flier prepared by Dunford’s office depicting a boy holding a sign, “Wanted: Foster Care Parents.” Off to the side is a checklist of things an individual or couple needs to do to become foster parents, including attending an orientation, completing an application, submitting to a home study, taking the training and becoming certified.
The group is also planning to send “ambassadors” to churches and civic groups to talk about the foster child issue, establish a mentoring program for foster kids and seek out adults who might be willing to serve a respite role — sheltering a child to give the foster parent a short break or until a child can be placed after a court-ordered removal from home. There have been times, Dunford said, that a child has slept on the floor of the social services department.
The group is eyeing this year’s Fourth of July celebration as the kickoff of the public awareness push, followed by appearances before church congregations and civic groups later in July and August. McCarthy spoke of “having a concentrated campaign to drum in the message.”
Dunford explained during the group’s first meeting in May that some kids in Rappahannock County “are not functioning because they lack security and structure. Once they get that, they can really turn around.” She spoke of the need to recruit more families willing to be foster parents so that those removed from their homes have a place to go.
McCarthy added that the complexity of the problem and the cost of dealing with it has risen. Half of the Rappahannock children currently in foster care come from homes where drug and alcohol abuse by parents is prevalent. Neglect and abuse in some troubled families continues from one generation to the next, he said.
“Earlier thinking was that it was best to keep families together. Now the best thing may be to get the child away from the family,” he said.
The cost to the county for caring for foster children and their families last year came to about $653,000 — about $24,000 per case, split about 60-40 between state and county funds. Counting the contribution from the state, foster care in Rappahannock costs about 5 percent of the county’s non-school budget.
Some children, usually those who have been abused, are placed in therapeutic foster care. The cost of doing so is higher and some children have been placed in therapeutic settings only because regular foster home placement hasn’t been available, McCarthy said.
Regnery said after the group’s latest meeting that he sees a need “to find people in the county willing to make it function properly. There are probably county residents who have a public service orientation who want to work with kids and families.”
Besides finding more adults willing to be foster parents or provide respite care, the group is also looking at creating a mentoring program that would provide the youngsters with adult role models, offering advice and friendship.