Lynchburg-area social services workers are seeing growing numbers of foster children, with more than 380 kids in the system currently.
Officials point to increased drug use and, in Lynchburg, significant domestic violence cases. Several departments pointed specifically to methamphetamine as a major contributor, and one official noted that meth use can span multiple generations in a family.
Methamphetamine "is such a powerful drug it really attacks the pleasure center of the brain," Director of Bedford County Department of Social Services Andrew Crawford said. "Meth is kind of like the coronavirus. If you find somebody addicted to meth, their support systems, which would be where we go to find care for the kids, they are likely to also be on meth."
According to local social services officials, regional localities have seen the following increases in foster children:
- Lynchburg: from 140 last year to 176 this year;
- Amherst County: from 12 a few years ago to 34 this year;
- Bedford County: from 73 a few years ago to 95 this year; and
- Nelson County: from about 13 last year to 29 this year.
In Campbell County, Family Services Supervisor Thea Gilliam said the county currently has 47 foster care cases. Although she could not comment on previous years, she echoed increases in substance abuse being at the root of foster care cases.
Compounding the problem is the fact that there aren't enough available foster homes to meet the demand.
When children can't be placed in a local home, Bedford County, like other localities, will look to therapeutic foster care facilities, Crawford said.
Crawford said the department's budget for the use of therapeutic facilities jumped by $2 million in fiscal year 2020 as a result of the increase in foster care children and the lack of agency homes available.
"It’s a huge cost to the taxpayer and the county when we don’t have enough foster homes," Crawford said.
Social service agencies in Amherst and Nelson counties also are relying more on therapeutic agencies, but these agencies might be located outside the community the child calls home, taking them away from familiar environments, communities and support systems.
Crawford said even taking a child from Bedford to Roanoke would be "quite the cultural shift."
Kayla Lutes, one of two foster care workers in Nelson County, said the department makes every effort to eventually reunite children with their biological families, adding that is the best option for families so long as parents are making the necessary progress.
Keeping children in the community and close by where they can more frequently visit with their biological family often helps facilitate that goal, she said.
“If we had more locally approved foster homes that were trained and really understood that goal ... we would see a much higher number of children returning home to their biological parents,” Lutes said.
Unlike surrounding localities, Lynchburg has a relatively low use of therapeutic foster care type facilities — Foster Care Supervisor April Watson estimated the number to be about a dozen children — either located in Virginia or in the community.
But Lynchburg has another problem — in addition to the increases in substance abuse that other localities are seeing, in Lynchburg there have been notable domestic violence incidents that have forced children to come into the system during the coronavirus pandemic, said Shana Richardson, another foster care supervisor.
"A lot of the incidents that result in children coming to care have had a domestic violence component. Children aren’t being seen as regularly so statewide the number of complaints have decreased but the calls we do get are significant," Watson said.
In addition to implementing standard health and safety measures, the pandemic has forced Lynchburg social services and other localities to "think outside the box" when COVID-19 made normal operations obsolete.
Many departments shuttered their doors and defaulted to performing important functions like wellness visits virtually.
Watson said when transitioning back to in-person visits, social workers and families turned to parks or community centers. Lynchburg also has been able to maintain a steady influx of new foster families through either virtual or small-group training.
While the coronavirus pandemic has taken away some more conventional in-person recruitment efforts, Lutes noted Nelson County recently turned to social media as a means of drumming up interest, which generated a lot of feedback in the community.
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