Va. First Lady Anne Holton Discusses Foster Care with Child Advocacy Clinic

October 29, 2009

Since leaving her seat as a Juvenile and Domestic Court judge to become Virginia's First Lady, Anne Holton has devoted much of her energy to reforming the state's foster care system.

Virginia First Lady Anne Holton discusses foster care with the Child Advocacy Clinic.

"I just had a sense that we could do better by these kids, " she said Monday to the Law School's Child Advocacy Clinic.

During her presentation, Holton — who met her future husband, Gov. Timothy Kaine, while in law school — gave the clinic students an overview of the state's foster care system, described some recent reforms and offered tips on advocating for children.

"Foster care basically is the way we provide for children whose families, for whatever reason, can't take care of them, " she said.

There are currently about 7,000 children in Virginia's foster care system, down from about 8,000 two years ago, Holton said.

"It tends to be that our numbers in Virginia are fairly small, " she said, adding that about 65 percent of the state's foster children enter the system through child abuse and neglect cases.

"The majority of these cases look fairly similar: Mom is on drugs and dad is absent, " she said. "If it's not that, it's that mom has significant mental health problems and dad is absent. If it's not that, dad is there, but there's domestic violence. Now sometimes the dads are the good guys, and sometimes the dads are more involved. It's not always that blatant, but those are your typical cases."

Children also enter the foster care system through other means such as delinquency, truancy or runaway cases, or when a parent asks for relief of custody because they are unable to care for their own children, Holton said.

Once in the system, foster children are either placed in family care — which could be with a relative or a foster family — or in group homes, residential treatment centers or psychiatric hospitals, depending on the case.

"They are here for, theoretically, a temporary time period, " Holton said. "The philosophy of foster care at the national and local levels, embedded in all the statutes, is that foster care should be temporary, that no kid should live their whole life in foster care, that we should figure out fairly quickly how to get them back to some sort of permanent family. But the reality is that lots of kids live years and years and years in foster care."

Foster children can exit the system either through being reunited with their families, permanent adoption, a transfer of custody or by "aging out" — voluntarily leaving the system at age 18 or older.

"While you are in foster care for a matter of months or years, you go to court a lot," Holton told students. "This is where I got to know this system, and this is where you might get to know this system."

When she left the bench after her husband was elected governor in 2005, Holton wanted to focus on foster care, especially older children in foster care. She said the system has failed when a child spends years and years in group homes or treatment facilities — where the state spends at least $60,000 per year per child — only to "age out" of the system after age 18 and quickly become homeless.

"These kids that are ending up homeless at age 19, we may well as a society have spent a million dollars on them during their time in care, " she said. "So with these million-dollar homeless kids, we're not exactly getting our money's worth out of our investment."

After her husband took office, Holton helped coordinate a review of the state's foster care system by a national organization that unearthed some unsettling facts. Despite the system's professed preference to place children in some sort of family care, about half of all teenagers — and a quarter of all foster kids — were being housed in the more expensive group facilities.

Also, as of June 2006, Virginia had the highest rate of kids aging out of foster care without permanent family connections.

"Children with permanent connections to stable adults, family or otherwise, are much more likely to be successful in life, " Holton said. "Foster kids who have stable family placements are also much more likely to be successful."

In January 2007, Holton launched the For Keeps initiative, which aims to find ways to get more foster children in family placements, and to strengthen those placements.

The organization focuses on decreasing the proportion of kids in group care in institutional settings, and on reducing the number of children who are discharged into their own care.

There has been success in both areas, Holton said. The percentage of foster kids in congregate care has been reduced from 26 percent statewide to 18 percent statewide.

The percentage of children discharged into a permanent status — considered the ideal result for foster children leaving the system — increased from 63 percent to 68 percent. Though there is still room to improve, Holton said the increase is heartening.

"We've dropped the overall numbers of children in foster care; we've dropped the percentage in congregate care, " she said.

Holton said law students interested in child advocacy should be ready to over-prepare and spend a lot of time on the facts of their cases, as opposed to concentrating solely on the applicable laws.

"Your most brilliant arguments are not going to be about some fancy legal principle. They are going to be about how some well-known principles apply to the facts, " she said.

She also advised students on the sometimes-difficult task of reconciling the wishes of an underage client with what they might think is in the child's best interests.

"If you are doing your job well, those two ought to be coming together. If you really don't think what your young person is asking for is good for them, then it probably has a snowball's chance of getting anywhere in court, and you are going to need to spend some time educating that young person that: 'I'm going to do whatever you tell me to do, because I'm your lawyer, but I've got to tell you, I don't' think the judge is going to [agree].'"

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