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As the opioid epidemic swells, Virginia’s foster care support falters for families

Vicki Lightfoot washes dishes while Maurice plays on the floor by her side early in the morning before school. Lightfoot was solely responsible for getting all four children ready for daycare and school.
Vicki Lightfoot washes dishes while Maurice plays on the floor by her side early in the morning before school. Lightfoot was solely responsible for getting all four children ready for daycare and school.

By Leah Small

Photographs by Hadley Chittum

Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism at WHRO

Editor's note: The names of the children in this story have been changed to protect their identities.

When her fourth grandchild was born, Vicki Lightfoot knew the trials that were ahead. The infant suffered from withdrawal symptoms after drug exposure in the womb, just as his older sister had at birth.

Baby Maurice was underweight and shook with tremors. His pain was controlled by medication while he detoxed in neonatal intensive care at a Richmond hospital.

His older sister, Marie, also fought through withdrawal during her first few weeks in the world. Lightfoot remembers the day Marie was born as “cold and somber.” After the births of both children, child welfare workers determined it wasn’t safe for the babies to go home with their mother, Lightfoot’s daughter, or their father. The parents, struggling with drug abuse, were unable to care for or be alone with the children.

Lightfoot, a retired government employee on a fixed income, stepped in to raise both babies. She was already raising their two older siblings while their mother abused opioids and other drugs for nearly a decade.

Lightfoot has taken on a role increasingly common in Virginia — the kinship carer. As the opioid epidemic has swept through the state, aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers and grandparents like Lightfoot raise children where parents have failed.

The number of children in the U.S. removed from their homes due to parents abusing drugs more than doubled between 2000 and 2017, from nearly 15% to more than 36%. In Virginia, the problem has exploded: the number of children sent to foster care because of parental drug abuse soared 60% between 2010 to 2019, according to state data.

Parental drug abuse is now the second leading cause, behind neglect, for children entering foster care. In Southwestern Virginia, more than 4 in 10 children sent to foster care in recent years were removed from their families because of a parent’s drug abuse.

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, according to state data, far below the national rate of 33%.

Kinship care is an exhausting role, especially for older relatives. But numerous studies show it’s often better for children than being raised by strangers in foster care.

Critics inside and outside the state’s beleaguered foster care system say Virginia has been unprepared to meet the child welfare demands of a generation of parents caught in the opioid crisis.

In Lightfoot’s crowded suburban Richmond home, bustling with young children, the matriarch was clear-eyed about her mission. She’s struggled with state and federal agencies to get the assistance to which they are legally entitled.

“I don’t know how I did it, this was all on me,” Lightfoot said. “It was all I could do, to keep the clothes washed. It was all I could do to keep them fed.”


A growing problem

The number of children being cared for by relatives, with or without help from a foster care system, dwarfs the overall number of children in foster care. About 70,000 children in Virginia — roughly 4% of adolescents — were being raised by their grandparents, according to a 2017 study by The Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Virginia’s foster care system has ranked for decades among the lowest in the nation for resources and the number of children aging out of the system. It falls far behind the nation in reaching the optimal goal – reuniting children with birth parents.

The system’s severe problems reached a spillover point when more than 160 children spent at least one night in either emergency rooms, hotels or local government offices over a period of six months during the COVID pandemic in 2021.

In a highly critical 2018 report, Virginia’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) found the state’s support of kinship care families is ineffective and sometimes negligent. Services are inconsistent from city to city, county to county and even from caseworker to caseworker.

“Local departments of social services do not do enough to place children in foster care with relatives,” state auditors wrote in their report to lawmakers, “and the state does not take sufficient steps to ensure non-relative foster families are available to care for children when relatives are unavailable.”

The result, advocates say, is a lost generation of children raised by everyone but their parents.

The combined failings of Virginia’s foster care system has led to one of the most tragic child welfare crises in the U.S.: about 20% of children in Virginia's foster care system turn 18 without finding a permanent home, double the national average. Since 2007, Virginia has been one of the three worst states for teens aging out of the system. Studies show these young adults are more likely to experience early parenthood, homelessness and joblessness.

Virginia lawmakers are considering steps how to improve support for kinship care during the 2024 legislative session, convened in January. A bill passed by the General Assembly and awaiting the governor’s signature would establish guidelines for better oversight of placements with relatives and provide family caretakers with more resources and funding.

Some legislators also want to amend laws to allow relatives with long-past drug offenses to become foster parents.

Allison Gilbreath, head of policy at Voices for Virginia’s Children, said increased services for both parents grappling addiction and relatives providing kinship care would enhance the welfare of the children.

“We unnecessarily remove children (from families) and don’t provide families with the support they need,” Gilbreath said. “We have to start asking if foster care is the solution or is it the problem, and more often than not, it is the problem.”


A mother, again

Vicki Lightfoot, 60, grew up in Hanover County, Virginia and had one child, the mother of her four grandchildren. She retired in 2019 after a 32-year career as an IRS auditor.

The Black matriarch is still all business, with neat and close hair she keeps short to not “bother with it.” She sets the clock in her car an hour fast to ensure the family arrives at baseball games, school pickups and academic fairs on time.

Lightfoot’s IRS career sent her across the U.S., and she had plans to travel on her own in retirement. A life-long learner, she started a masters degree in theology and a second career as a minister.

Meanwhile, her daughter, who also had a job with the IRS, fell deeper into addiction. The daughter barely stayed in touch, moving around Richmond and Henrico County.

Lightfoot began to take care of her grandchildren full time at her suburban Richmond home nearly a decade ago. The two oldest, Alysha, 10, and Corey, 12, lost their father in a 2017 shooting in Richmond. In 2019, Lightfoot gained legal custody of the children.

Alysha and Corey longed for their mother.

Two years ago, Lightfoot sat down on the living room couch with the two grandchildren. She put her arms around them and explained why they couldn’t be with their mom. Alysha cried.

“Listen, your mother’s sick, your mother’s on drugs. She needs help,” Lightfoot said. “Alysha, you can’t go with her because she doesn’t have a room for you. She needs to have a room just like you have now. She needs to have a car. She needs to be good in her mind.

“She needs to give you at least what you have now for you to go with her. Okay?”

Lightfoot’s days grew longer when she brought Marie and Maurice home.

Lightfoot comforted Marie while the baby recovered in a Henrico hospital. “I cried…not loud – tears just came down from my eyes,” Lightfoot said. “I held her tight in the rocking chair and just sang to her a made up song, sang ‘it’s going to be alright’ over and over, and I just prayed.”

The first week with Maurice, she and the baby slept together on top of her gray bedroom comforter. When he woke up multiple times in the night, she held him close to her chest and sang to him just as she did in the neonatal intensive care unit.

“If I was relaxed, (the babies) would relax,” Lightfoot said. “I didn’t know if they thought I was their mother or not, but I guess I was close enough.”

Though raising her grandchildren yields rewarding and happy moments, there are always worries over money and fighting through the bureaucracy of social services. Financial strain in the household reached a crisis point when her third grandchild came into the home. After paying bills, she was usually left with about $200 dollars to pay for groceries.

“I have probably been behind on electric [bills] and everything else because I would have taken from that to pay for something else,” she said. “Took away from Peter to pay Paul.”

Lightfoot’s daughter received disability benefits to care for Corey. But after Vicki Lightfoot was granted custody in 2019, her daughter, still in the grasp of addiction, continued to cash the disability checks.

Lightfoot quickly notified the Social Security office. “I told them, I have the child; I don’t have the money,” she said. “It’s not coming. It’s going to the mother.”

It took 18 months before the federal agency sent the benefits to Lightfoot.

In the mornings, she typically roused the older siblings to get them ready for school and spent the day looking after a baby and toddler, and shuttling the kids to doctor’s appointments and sports. In between, she balanced taking online courses. Lightfoot preaches part time at a nursing home and has officiated funerals when her sister was available to watch the kids.

Chronic health problems, such as arthritis and being easily fatigued due to lingering cardiac issues after a heart attack she suffered more than ten years ago, made caring for the kids a physical challenge.

“There’s a reason you have children when you’re young. You think faster, you react faster,” Lightfoot said. “But I wasn’t going to let my biological grandchildren go to a stranger, that was stronger than anything.”


Families left behind

Kinship care eases pressure on an overburdened system, according to a report by the Virginia Poverty Law Center, or VPLC. “These relatives are not just helping their families,” the authors wrote. “They also create a relief valve for state and local departments of social services — already struggling with high caseloads, caseworker turnover rates, and a shortage of foster homes — and prevent further overburdening of the system.”

Research has shown that if reunification with parents isn’t an option, children fare better when they are cared for by relatives they know and trust. The door to reconnecting with parents and other family members also remains open.

But while kinship care often provides a more cost effective and stable environment for children than foster care, state auditors say Virginia has failed to adequately support it.

The 2018 JLARC study exposed shortcomings in staffing at local child welfare agencies and insufficient efforts to place children in permanent homes. Last year, Virginia’s child welfare workforce had a 35% turnover rate for entry level hires, according to the state department of social services.

Advocates say inexperienced and overburdened social workers often fail to alert family members of all the benefits available to them. The omissions were so egregious that the state passed a law several years ago requiring caseworkers to notify kinship care families that they were eligible for foster care benefits.

The state has taken steps to have social workers identify and place more children from troubled homes with responsible family members. The practice, known as diversion, has been adopted by many states.

Under former Gov. Tim Kaine, diverting children in unsafe homes to a relative’s care helped cut the state’s foster care population by nearly half. The number of children in foster care has remained relatively stable, around 5,000 adolescents, for nearly a decade.

But the JLARC report highlighted the state’s failure to provide resources for kinship carers and the children they took into their homes through diversion. Carl Ayers, deputy commissioner for human services for the Virginia Department of Social Services (VDSS), said social workers were able to find stable homes for many at-risk children. But, he added, “we did that without the financial supports.”

In the last several years, child welfare advocates have successfully pushed lawmakers to boost financial support for children in the care of relatives. Family caregivers outside of foster care can receive nearly $500 a month from Virginia’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), up from $200.

But many caregivers do not apply for TANF funds because it triggers the state to pursue support from the child’s parents, said Valerie L’Herrou, an attorney and family advocate with VPLC. “To basically sic the department of Child Support Enforcement on maybe their sister, their child, is something people don’t want to do,” she said.

Lightfoot has received some additional aid from the federal and state-funded Kinship Guardian Assistance Program (KinGAP). The program supports relatives caring for children in situations where adoption isn’t the goal.

“I’m hoping someday my daughter will come around and go to court and get custody,” Lightfoot said. “They’re not my children. They’re my grandchildren. That’s the natural order of things.”

But the program has limits. KinGAP goes toward caring for Lightfoot’s youngest grandchild, but the other three grandchildren are ineligible because they were already in Lightfoot’s legal custody.

The program’s strict requirements exclude thousands of Virginia children who are being cared for by family members outside of the foster care system. Only about 60 children have been supported by the program since it was established in 2018, according to records obtained from VDSS by the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism at WHRO.

“It is frustrating, as we make adjustments to help make the process better, that people that were engaged in the process before these changes (went) into effect don’t get to take advantage of them,” said former state Sen. Monty Mason, who authored laws that expanded support for kinship carers.


A new arrival

While facing hardship, Lightfoot ensured her grandchildren thrived. Both Alysha and Corey are honor roll students. Corey plays both football and baseball. The sports help him channel the excess stress and energy that come with his ADHD diagnosis.

“Helping them when they need me for a project or something they need to do, that’s when I enjoy being a grandmother,” Lightfoot said. “I guess I’m older, and I don’t like all that foolishness that goes on in between.”

Several months ago, Vicki got a phone call from her daughter. She said she was clean and had been in a drug rehabilitation program for several weeks. Over the years, her daughter, now 33, had promised to get help but had never followed through. She asked to move back home.

Lightfoot initially wanted to say “no,” but she was exhausted and desperate for help with the kids. Lightfoot did what she has always done in unsure times.

“I prayed and asked for more discernment, hoped I was making the right decision and if not, protect this house and watch over us all,” she said. She let her daughter back in.

In the first few months, her daughter stepped up and relieved Lightfoot as the primary caregiver of the children. She’s doing the laundry and housework that comes with a large family. “She has not been lazy at all,” Lightfoot said.

But reuniting the family has meant one more mouth to feed on a fixed income. Her daughter is appealing to get her job back at the IRS. The family is learning to trust a wayward daughter and mother again.

Lightfoot is proud of her daughter’s recent steps toward recovery. “The trust is developing,” she said. “Her state of mind and her actions will speak louder than words.”

Contact Leah Small at leahmariesmall@gmail.com