A new state office is designed to give a voice to Virginia families and social workers who have had nowhere to turn with complaints about their local social services agencies — a problem that has plagued child welfare for at least four decades.
Gov. Ralph Northam has appointed attorney Eric Reynolds as Virginia’s first children’s ombudsman, more than a year after legislation establishing the office was signed into law. Reynolds started Friday and will serve a four-year term. He will report directly to the governor.
Reynolds was most recently the staff attorney for court improvement programs at the Virginia Supreme Court and also served as legal counsel for the Virginia Department of Social Services and other state agencies.
His office will investigate complaints concerning the 120 local social services departments in the state. According to a state legislative watchdog report, the Virginia Department of Social Services lacked a clear way to identify and address problems in its local agencies. Both biological and foster parents were often scared to speak out against an agency because they feared their children would be removed from their home.
If people tried to complain to state or regional social services offices, they were directed to a constituent services unit, which, despite its name, is set up to help local departments, not constituents.
Reynolds said he was drawn to the ombudsman position because of this gap. After graduating from the University of Richmond’s law school, Reynolds represented children and parents in dependency cases before moving on to work for a number of state agencies. He said that after seeing the system from both sides, he understood that there was a missing opportunity for parents and families to seek clarity and to alert the state to issues that arose in their cases.
“Agencies have responsibilities that they’re legally required to fulfill and they have boundaries that they have to set,” Reynolds said. “The ombudsman will field those calls, hear those complaints, hear folks’ experience with those agencies and be able to respond in a helpful way without giving them the runaround.”
Any individual can submit a complaint to the ombudsman, but the office can also initiate an investigation without receiving a complaint. After an investigation, the ombudsman can pursue any necessary action, including legal action, to protect the rights and welfare of a child who is receiving child protective services, is in foster care, or is placed for adoption.
The ombudsman can also advocate for legislative changes, make recommendations to social services offices and investigate violations of the rights of foster parents.
Reynolds said he is working to hire additional staff and set up an intake process before the office can begin receiving complaints, but there will soon be a website and phone hotline.
In 2018, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission recommended creating an ombudsman’s office to help fix issues in the state’s foster care system. The commission’s report detailed many problems with the state social services department’s accountability and oversight of local agencies.
JLARC reports have documented the lack of accountability at social services agencies for nearly 40 years. Reports have said that local departments can operate for years with severe inadequacies, and that the local agencies face no consequences if they do not fix identified problems.
At least 14 other states have implemented ombudsman offices that have been able to improve child welfare programs.
“These mechanisms enable states to use strategic, targeted interventions when a local office is unable or unwilling to address identified problems,” the 2018 JLARC report said.
Currently, people with complaints against local departments who contact regional or state social services offices are directed to the constituent services unit.
Em Parente, acting director of the Division of Family Services, said the office has a full-time staff of four people who respond to questions and complaints. She said the office hears a range of concerns, such as from biological parents who are upset that their children have been removed or foster parents who disagree with their local department’s decisions.
Parente said the staff helps explain the social services system and whether anything can be done. If there is a situation in which a local department employee has not followed policy, the office reaches out to the local agency.
“Our first strategy is always to make sure the local department understands the issue, what the person is upset about and if there is something more the local department can do to resolve the issue,” she said. “Because we’re supervising, we don’t intervene in the cases.”
Parente said the office tries to keep in mind who it contacts so there is no retaliation against complainants, but in the end, the constituent services unit is set up to assist the local department.
Del. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery, who introduced the children’s ombudsman bill, said he had spoken with foster parents who had problems with their local departments but feared retaliation if they complained. He said an ombudsman office would be a place people could turn without the threat of retaliation, which is why he introduced the bill three separate times before it was finally passed and funded.
“You couldn’t go up the ladder to air a grievance,” he said. “It became clear to me there had to be an independent, outside office to do that work.”
The ombudsman office will be able to investigate on behalf of citizens and will work from outside the social services system. Reynolds said he is sensitive to the potential for retaliation against those who complain.
“We’ll be developing some protocols about that and coming up with solutions,” he said. “I believe in working collaboratively to resolve issues and not just with the agency, but also the complainant. I hope the relationships I build and the approach I take in these investigations will help stave off any kind of retaliatory action.”
Additionally, the ombudsman office will be able to advocate for legislative or policy changes if the staff sees trends or issues between agencies. Reynolds said he hopes to take all of the good ideas and put them into action to help agencies be more effective and protect children and families in Virginia.
“As the independent advocate at the state level, the ombudsman can play that role in guiding that unified approach,” he said. “We respond to questions and complaints, but there’s also the advocacy part — to fill gaps that are inherent in the child welfare system.”
Alison Graham is The Secular Society Investigative Fellow at The Roanoke Times.