By Taylor Boyd
While nearly every service was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the foster care system in Patrick County remained relatively the same, according to Department of Social Services Director Joan Rogers.
She said the number of children in need of foster care was basically consistent during the more than two-year pandemic.
However, she noted that the switch to virtual learning could have affected the number of reports the department received.
“When the schools shut down, we got less reports because school personnel are mandated reporters. So, we have no idea how many children and families during that period were in need of our services because we weren’t aware” due to that lack of reporting, she said.
Currently 18 local children are in foster care, Rogers said, adding that is one to three more in the system than in 2021.
There also is a shortage of foster families, she said.
In February, the county had eight foster families, and each had foster children in the home. As a result, the majority of children often are placed with families outside the county, Rogers said, adding that arrangement puts additional burdens on the case workers, who then must drive further distances during the required monthly visits and mandated visits between separated siblings.
“We have to have continuous visits, and when they’re placed out of county, it’s more difficult,” she said.
The foster care case load in Patrick is relatively small compared to those in neighboring localities, Rogers said, adding that the Henry County-Martinsville department has more than 90 cases and Franklin County has 86 youth in care.
Rogers said before children are removed from their homes, the agency’s prevention services unit works to prevent and stop the issues causing children to enter foster care. When youngsters are taken into the system, “it’s because we can’t find relatives, severe abuse/neglect, and the child just cannot remain with that family unit because of the severity of the problem,” she said.
Rogers estimated that in about 90 percent of all foster care cases, substance abuse leads to the removal of children. Domestic violence, lack of resources and family support, and mental health issues also play vital roles.
Ann Foley, the foster care program director, said once children are removed from their homes, department workers usually meet with the families a week into the process. During these meetings, case workers help to develop plans to rectify the situation that led to the removal.
“We do referrals for services, we have family meetings and we talk with the family about what they feel they need, and we do service plans with guidelines with what they need. Sometimes there’s housing issues, and we offer support to help them find housing,” she said.
Federal guidelines provide 12-months timeframe when deciding how to proceed with the children. Near the end of that period, Rogers said the department must either return the children home, file for parental termination, place them with relatives, or put them up for adoption. “Those are the goals we need to achieve within maybe 13-months,” she said.
Before a child is placed into foster care, case workers look for relatives or close family friends to take the child. “State policy has changed. Now we can talk about family, friends and supports that aren’t biologically related to the child. They’re not going into a home with strangers, it’s at least someone they know and have a connection with,” Foley said.
Foster care worker Julie Altice said this change in policy is good, because in several of her cases, family support could not be found.
Because of the foster care process and the history behind being removed from their families, children in foster care are often traumatized. Rogers said that can lead to difficulties learning in school, fear of food scarcity, worrying about personal safety and that of siblings.
For more information on the local foster care program, contact the Patrick County Department of Social Services at (276) 694-3328.