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How VCIJ at WHRO reported on Virginia’s foster care system

Vicki Lightfoot stands by the front door with Maurice and Marie while waiting for the other grandkids, Alysha and Corey, to finish getting ready for school.
Vicki Lightfoot is a grandmother in Richmond who cares for four of her grandchildren. (Photo by Hadley Chittum for the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism at WHRO)


Between 2010 and 2019, the number of children sent to foster care because of parental drug abuse soared by 60%. 

It's now the second leading cause behind neglect for children entering Virginia's social safety net. 

Richmond reporter Leah Small  followed Vicki Lightfoot, a retiree, caring for her four grandchildren. Lightfoot’s daughter has struggled with addiction for more than a decade. 

This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

http://assets.whro.org/240301_VCIJ_FEATURE_6-Minute (1).mp3

Louis Hansen: Leah, tell us about somie of the things that Vicki [Lightfoot] has had to do to bring these children up in a healthy way.

Leah Small: When we go back to the detox period for these kids, they really have a hard time thriving in the first few weeks and even in the first few months. It was a while before they could even leave the hospital. It was weeks. 

L.H: What is kinship care and what is the state doing to support grandmothers and other relatives like Vicki Lightfoot?

L.S: Kinship care, basically, is when a relative steps in to take care of a child who is in danger of going into foster care for a myriad of reasons.  

L.H: Tell us about the state's foster care system. What's its history? Where does it stand nationally?

L.S: We consistently one of the three worst states for children [and] teenagers aging out of the foster care system before finding a permanent home. In situations where it's optimal, is the child returning to the parents? We want to make sure that [the] family unit is strong and that the parents get the services they need to do their job. 

L.H: And what is Virginia doing to support kinship care? Experts say that is really one of the best places for a child to be rather than to be placed with a stranger family in a foster care system. 

L.S: Virginia has a very poor history of supporting kinship care, particularly when compared with other states. A big barometer of that is the relatively low number of foster carers who are kinship carers. 

If your grandmother or uncle who is [taking a child in is] your relative, going through the steps and being a foster carer has the benefits of financial support and case management, with an eye toward reunification and offering the family other help. 

However, in Virginia, we have a relatively low number of kinship carers who are part of the foster care system – only roughly 11% compared to 34% nationwide.

L.H: One of the things that stood out for me in your reporting is the fact that you found 70,000 children in Virginia are being raised by their grandparents. That seems to me a wide number of communities that are affected. What did you find in Vicki's story that told you about some hope that could come out of this? 

L.S: Just in speaking with her daughter,  I have seen the progress because honestly, the long-term plan for the family is  … for them to continue to live together and generationally and for the daughter to support her mother as she ages. 

L.H: State lawmakers are looking at some changes to the way aid is given to these families. Can you tell us about what's in Richmond right now? 

L.S: There's two big kinship bills being considered by the General Assembly. One is to make it easier for children to be placed with relatives. 

As it stands, there are certain drug offenses that would bar relative caregivers from taking in these children. What they want to do is say, hey, look, this offense, maybe you're in your 40s, 50s, and you have your life together. You haven't had an arrest or for a drug crime in decades, and you've gotten your life together and you want to take in this kid. Currently, as things are, you can't. So they really want to make those rules less strict. 

L.H: And where does that bill stand now? It's still alive in the General Assembly. 

L.S: Yes, it is still alive in the General Assembly. So that's one bill. And the other is to provide more guardrails and oversight of kinship care and more financial resources for kinship carers. 

L.H: Why is helping children stay with family members a better thing for Virginia as a whole, and the community, as well as the children who are being brought up? 

L.S: When we look at children who age out of the system without finding a permanent family, a permanent place, they are far more likely to be homeless, jobless and experience early pregnancy. 

Louis Hansen is co-founder and senior editor of The Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism at WHRO. He’s been a journalist for more than 20 years in New York, Philadelphia, Hampton Roads and Silicon Valley. He was an enterprise and investigative reporter for The Virginian-Pilot for more than a decade, covering state government, military affairs and criminal justice. He served as a combat correspondent in Iraq and the Persian Gulf, covered the Virginia legislature and state and federal elections. Hansen has won national and state awards for his work. His profile of a teenage gang member, “The Girl Who Took Down the Gang,” was published in a collection of the ten best newspaper narratives of 2012.