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Lawmakers promote kinship care with help from a surprising source

Students Ryan Carp and Divya Sharma with Virginia State Delegate Katrina Callsen and UVA Law Professor Andrew Block
Students Ryan Carp and Divya Sharma with Virginia State Delegate Katrina Callsen and UVA Law Professor Andrew Block

When parents die or lose custody of their kids, social services in Virginia usually turn to the foster care system – placing children with strangers. Most other states check first with relatives or friends of the family. Nationwide about 35% of children who need a new home are placed with relatives or friends, but in Virginia the number is just 16% -- the lowest of any state. Charlottesville Delegate Katrina Callsen wanted to change that, citing studies that show kids do better in so-called kinship care.

“They’re more likely to be reunited with their biological parents. They’re more likely to be adopted by kin or their family if it gets to that," she explains. "They have better mental health outcomes -- just a lot of improved outcomes when children are placed with people they’re familiar with.”

So she sponsored a bill that makes it clear – kinship care is the state’s priority.

“This is the will of the General Assembly. This is what we want to see departments doing.”

Callsen also sponsored legislation making it possible for people with misdemeanors in their distant past to become guardians and creates a uniform schedule for social service agencies statewide.

“Often times whoever takes a kid doesn’t know how long it’s going to be, doesn’t know what’s going on, so this puts some real structure in place and says, ‘Here’s what it looks like. Here’s a timeline. Here’s when we’re going to check back in.'”

And the legislation allows children in kinship or foster care to stay in their current school, even if their new home is in another district. It also sets aside $20 million to support kids.

“It’s going to allow those family members who are willing to step in and care for that child, it’s going to give them the resources so that they can do it, and it’s not a burden that they can’t overcome,” she says.

Time and staff are in short supply when the General Assembly meets, but Callsen got help promoting her bills from two law students at UVA who are part of the State and Local Government Policy Clinic. Divya Sharma jumped at the chance to get some practical experience.

“I’ve always been really interested in policy, and it was a really unique opportunity to get to do real work in the community and feel like I was doing more than just reading and absorbing information. I was actually getting to apply that information. It was really fun to follow a project all the way from its start to its finish and have something I could say: I did that!”

Sharma knew about gridlock in Congress, but at the state level she was relieved to find it was still possible to make bi-partisan progress.

“It was really wonderful to see that people were coming from all angles to put aside politics -- to get it done.”

The main sponsors of the measures were Democrats, but Republicans joined as co-sponsors, and Governor Glenn Youngkin called a news conference to applaud their passage.

Sharma and fellow law student Ryan Carp did research, met with non-profits like Voices for Virginia’s Children – people who had first-hand knowledge of the problems with our current system of foster care. They met with lawmakers to explain the new bills and helped other supporters to make the case.

“Ryan and I would draft memos or one-pagers or talking points – whatever was necessary for the people we were working with that week.”

Along the way they got plenty of coaching from UVA Law Professor Andrew Block – who, under Governor Ralph Northam, had led an effort to reform the juvenile justice system, and from newly elected Delegate Callsen.

“She spent a lot of time explaining background information and the nitty gritty of her job," Sharma recalls. "She just gave me a lot of faith that somebody can say, ‘I care about this, and I want to do good and can actually just go do it.”

In the end, Sharma was inspired to consider a career in public service. Often, she discovered, it really does take a village – with dozens of people stepping up to work on these laws alone, and eleven more law students in the Government and Policy Clinic worked with other lawmakers to get their bills passed.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief