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Virginia Trails Nation in Placing Foster Children With Relatives

By Caitlin Morris, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Only 7% of Virginia’s foster children are placed with relatives, according to a new study — well below the national average of 32%.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation tracked changes in foster care in each state from 2007 to 2017. For Virginia, the data snapshot contained some good news: There were fewer children in foster care, and fewer foster children were placed in group homes.

But many experts say that ideally, foster children should be placed with relatives — and on that measure, Virginia did not make any progress over the 10 years.

“We want for children to have a family that is their family forever — whether it’s their family of origin or if their foster family turns into an adoptive home,” said Allison Gilbreath, a policy analyst at Voices for Virginia’s Children, a nonprofit advocacy program.

Over the 10-year period, Virginia was successful in decreasing the percentage of foster children in group homes from 23% to 17%. That means more children have been fostered in family settings — but just not with their own relatives. The data also shows that older youth are more likely to be in group homes.

Virginia was also successful in reducing the number of children entering foster care. In 2007, there were 7,665, compared with 4,795 in 2017.

“While we have reduced the number of children overall in foster care, black children in particular continue to be overrepresented both in family-based settings, but also particularly in group homes,” Gilbreath said. “We really need to spend some time and energy in the state and figure out what we can do that will specifically get at the racial inequities in the foster care system.”

This year’s Virginia General Assembly passed SB 1339 to bring Virginia in compliance with federal foster care regulations, including the federal Family First Prevention Services Act enacted in 2018. The act encourages states to keep children in family-based settings by redirecting federal funds to support services for at-risk children and their caregivers.

Virginia’s new law also aims to increase the number of children placed with family members by notifying relatives when a child enters foster care.

Voices for Virginia’s Children joined the Annie E. Casey Foundation in calling on child welfare systems to shift resources from group placements to family settings.

“They feel more loved and protected, and it’s a more normal experience for that child,” Gilbreath said. “But also, they’re more likely to achieve permanency that way, and that’s what we really want for kids.”

The organizations contend that the support system for other foster children and caregivers should also be available to relatives who take in children. This includes financial support and access to mental health support. Often, family members take in a child through what is known as kinship diversion, meaning they take in a child without using the foster system and don’t receive the same support as caregivers in the foster program.

The children’s advocacy groups also called for expansion of kinship navigator programs. These programs aim to help relative caregivers navigate the complex child welfare system. Under the Family First Prevention Services Act, additional federal funds have been made available for kinship navigator programs.

“Virginia has already started to take advantage of these funds but could adopt the programs statewide,” Voices for Virginia’s Children stated in a press release.

The organization and the Annie E. Casey Foundation also asked for increased access to services that would help stabilize families. By aligning legislation with the Family First Prevention Services Act, funds will be accessible for family support services to prevent at-risk children from entering the foster system.

“It’s going to provide the first-ever opportunity to have money used to prevent entry into foster care,” Gilbreath said. This funding will go toward programs that offer mental health support for the child and the caregivers, substance abuse treatment and in-home training in parenting skills for the family.

“If we were able to step in and provide that family support — we’d be able to make that family successful,” Gilbreath said.

Officials Seek to Attract Grocery Stories to ‘Food Deserts’

By Caitlin Morris, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Reflecting national concerns over “food deserts,” federal and state lawmakers Monday called for legislation to help people in low-income neighborhoods get better access to fresh vegetables and other healthy foods.

The officials discussed food insecurity at a town-hall-style meeting at the Peter Paul Development Center in Richmond’s East End, where poverty is high and full-fledged grocery stores are scarce.

In 2019 in America, “nobody should go to bed hungry at night,” said U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, who hosted the meeting.

“Too often, what we have are communities — urban and rural — where there may be a corner store, but you walk in to that corner store, and you may have large volumes of food, but it’s not healthy food.”

Warner was joined by members of the Virginia General Assembly and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, as well as by staff members of U.S. Rep. Donald McEachin of Richmond. About 60 residents also attended the meeting.

Warner and McEachin, both Democrats, are co-sponsoring federal legislation called the Healthy Food Access for All Americans Act. It would provide tax credits and grants to grocery stores, food banks and other organizations that provide healthy foods in underserved communities. Entities would undergo a certification process to qualify for financial assistance.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 37 million Americans live in food deserts. In urban areas, individuals are considered to be living in a food desert if they must travel more than one mile to buy affordable, healthy food. In rural areas, it is considered a food desert if access is 10 miles away.

Under the proposed HFAAA, businesses would apply for certification as Special Access Food Providers. A certified store that opens in a food desert could receive a one-time 15% tax credit. Businesses that have been remodeled or rehabilitated to qualify as grocery stores would receive a one-time tax credit of 10%.

To meet these qualifications, at least 35% of a store’s products must be fresh produce, poultry, dairy and deli items.

Under the HFAAA, grants would be awarded to food banks to cover 15% of the costs of building a permanent structure in a food desert. “Temporary access merchants,” such as nonprofit farmers markets and some food banks, could receive grants for up to 10% their annual operating cost.

State legislators in Virginia have also been pushing to address food insecurity. During this year’s legislative session, a bill to provide funding for the construction, rehabilitation and expansion of grocery stores unanimously passed in the Senate but died in the House of Delegates.

SB 999, sponsored by Republican Sen. Bill Stanley of Franklin and Democratic Sen. Rosalyn Dance of Petersburg, would have established the Virginia Grocery Investment Fund and provided $5 million to help approved food providers in underserved communities.

Warner complimented Democratic Dels. Delores McQuinn of Richmond and Lamont Bagby of Henrico for their efforts as well.

“Delores and Lamont and others have been trying to move this issue forward with a series of Virginia-based initiatives,” Warner said. “What Donald (McEachin) and I have tried to do at the federal level is to say, ‘How can we as a federal government provide some additional assistance?’”

Like SB 999 at the Virginia Capitol, the HFAAA before Congress has bipartisan support. Republican Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas is also sponsoring the act.

Richmond residents at Monday’s discussion agreed that work must be done to address food insecurity in Virginia, but many expressed concerns about how the HFAAA would affect the community.

Individuals said they fear that offering incentives to open grocery stores in underserved neighborhoods would lead to gentrification as wealthier people move in and poorer residents are pushed out. Development in disadvantaged communities could lead to higher rents and the loss of small businesses.

Warner said he wants to make sure residents are protected from negative impacts. He said he hopes to “see if there’s a way in my legislation to give recipients an extra benefit if they live in the community.”

General Assembly Expands Revenge Porn Law to Include Fake Nudes

By Caitlin Morris, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- The Virginia General Assembly passed a bill to expand revenge porn laws to include realistic fake images.

In 2014, Virginia outlawed the dissemination of explicit photos or videos without the consent of the person seen in the images. The images may have been originally shared in agreement between both parties, but in cases of revenge porn, get posted online by people seeking to embarrass the victim.

“They put them on a website with the intent to coerce, harass or maliciously hurt those folks,” said Del. Marcus B. Simon, D-Fairfax.

Simon introduced HB 2678 to protect victims of an emerging trend known as “deepfakes.” These realistically fabricated images and videos are becoming more common as modern software develops and social media creates easier access to images.

“These days you don’t even need to actually have photos like that — of the person, in your possession … all you have to have are pictures of their face,” Simon said. “You can use artificial intelligence to wrap that on the body.”

Roughly 10 million Americans have been threatened with or become victims of revenge porn. Women are twice as likely to be threatened by men, according to a 2016 study by the Data and Society Research Institute.

“The non-consensual dissemination of intimate photos or videos is not just humiliating for victims, but it can also carry significant emotional, psychological and even financial repercussions,” Simon said.

In a 2015 study from the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, 51 percent of victims of revenge porn indicated that they had considered committing suicide, and 39 percent said the crime affected their career and professional lives. Ninety percent of victims, according to the same group, are women.

Revenge porn laws now exist in 41 states and Washington, D.C., but according to Simon’s team, HB 2678 is “one of the first of its kind in the country.”

The bill adds language to existing law that includes protection for victims when their image is used in the creation, adaptation or modification of a video or picture. Violators of the law could be charged with a Class 1 misdemeanor, which carries a sentence of up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

“Deepfakes are yet another malicious tool used to harass and terrorize individuals, who are most often women,” Simon said.

If signed by the governor, the “deepfake” cyber harassment bill will go into effect July 1.

Virginia Lawmakers Pass Bill Allowing Happy Hour Ads

By Caitlin Morris, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Virginia bar patrons might soon see a slew of new advertisements from their favorite hangouts — ads that include prices for happy hour specials.

Legislation moving through  this year’s General Assembly would allow restaurants and bars to include drink prices in their happy hour advertisements.

Currently, restaurants and bars can advertise in a number of ways that they have a happy hour — such as posters, social media and websites — but they can’t advertise the drink prices outside their buildings. The ads can convey only the time of the special and the type of drink or brand being offered. The current law applies even to a recorded answering machine message.

The House of Delegates this week joined the Senate in passing legislation to loosen the rules. The House voted 94-2 in favor of SB 1726, which was approved unanimously by the Senate in January. The bill now goes to the governor to be signed into law.

The legislation would now permit  happy hour ads to include the prices of drink specials and other creative marketing techniques “provided that such techniques do not tend to induce overconsumption or consumption by minors.”

In 2018, restaurant owner and chef Geoff Tracy sued the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority, saying the current law violated the First Amendment. Tracy contended that the restrictions on happy hour advertisements infringed on his right to free speech, making them unconstitutional — and hurting his business in Northern Virginia.

Tracy also owns restaurants in Maryland and Washington, D.C., where he faces no such restrictions.

“Virginia has some antiquated ideas about what people should be allowed to do socially,” said Darin Pilger, the general manager of Bandito’s Burrito Lounge in Richmond.

Bar patrons might be surprised by the number of laws restricting drink specials. For example, two-for-one drink specials are illegal and happy hour is forbidden from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. Promotions for discounts are limited to being called “happy hour” or “drink specials”  — there’s no room for “margarita Mondays” under current law. Businesses that don’t comply could face suspended or revoked liquor licenses.

“You put up with all the laws, and you honor them, but you’re always just shaking your head,” Pilger said.



Panel Kills Ban on Gender-Based Pricing at Dry Cleaners

By Caitlin Morris, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Kinsey Liebsch asked state legislators a question often raised by women who take their clothes to a dry cleaner or laundry service.

“Given that a woman’s long sleeve blouse isn’t much different from a man’s shirt, why am I being charged more than two and half times the amount just because the buttons are on the opposite side?” she asked a legislative subcommittee. Liebsch said dry-cleaning and laundry services can charge more to clean women’s clothing than comparable men’s clothing.

Liebsch initially took her concerns to her local legislator — Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria. Then Levine filed a bill to ban gender-based price discrimination by apparel-cleaning services.

“Every woman I’ve talked to about this bill has said it was necessary,” Levine said. “Every man I’ve talked to about it didn’t realize it was an issue. And to be fair, I didn’t realize it was an issue until Kinsey brought it to me.”

But last week, Levine’s legislation was hung out to dry: Subcommittee No. 2 of the House Courts of Justice Committee voted unanimously to table HB 2423.

Liebsch and two other women testified before the subcommittee in support of the bill.

One of the women was Dr. Elizabeth Hendricks, an Alabama native who moved to Virginia two years ago. She recalled her experience getting a dress-suit cleaned at an Alexandria dry cleaner.

Hendricks described the article of clothing as a “dress and jacket that matched as a suit.” The price listed for a suit cleaning was $13.50, but Hendricks was charged $22 because her dress was not considered “short.”

“Slacks and a suit are not short either,” said Hendricks, who stands 5 feet, 2 inches tall.

HB 2423 would have ensured that prices for cleaning services for similar items do not vary because of a person’s gender. The bill said price differences are acceptable if one item takes longer to clean or poses more difficulty than another.

“Everyone understands that a wedding dress is going to cost more to clean than a groom’s tux,” Levine said.

The Virginia Retail Federation opposed the bill and said apparel-cleaning services do not base their prices on a customer’s gender.

“They base their pricing on material,” said Kate Baker, the federation’s director of government affairs. “Our members feel like they should be able to determine their own prices.”

The all-male subcommittee voted 6-0 to kill Levine’s bill. It happened the day after a proposal to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment died in the House of Delegates. Levine said his bill was “just one tiny example of why we need the ERA.”

Lobbying ‘Day of Action’ Brings Hundreds to Richmond

Political Activists attending Monday's Day of Action march down Fifth Street on their walk to the capitol, where they plan to lobby for legislation to increase the minimum wage.

By Caitlin Morris, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Hundreds of political activists from across Virginia gathered in Richmond on Monday to lobby in favor of driving rights for immigrants, a higher minimum wage and voting rights for felons.

The New Virginia Majority, a civic engagement group that focuses on marginalized communities, held its fifth annual Day of Action event on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

A diverse group of activists assembled at the Hotel John Marshall for presentations on the organization’s legislative priorities before marching to the Capitol where they lobbied lawmakers.

“We are actually working and tracking and advocating in support of over 200 pieces of legislation,” said Tram Nguyen, co-executive director of the New Virginia Majority.

The group’s lead political organizer, Monica Hutchinson, coached activists and community members before they set out to lobby legislators.

“They need to put a face and a story to that bill,” Hutchinson said.

Faces like Robert Davis, who lobbied for voting rights legislation, including bills that would restore rights to felons who have completed their sentences. Davis had his right to vote restored in 2016, after almost 30 years of disenfranchisement.

“I always wanted to vote, but I couldn’t vote because of my background,” Davis said. “I’m still a convicted felon.”

Virginia is one of three states that permanently disenfranchise people with felony records. The law affects over 500,000 Virginians, over half of whom are African American, according to the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization focused on criminal justice reform.

“It affects all of us,” Davis said. “But the minority, it hurts.”

The first marchers of the day left to rally for SB 1200, a bill before the Senate on Monday that would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour over the next two years. That’s more than double the current wage of $7.25.

“The plan is to make my money, save my money, plan for the future, plan for retirement,” said Thomasine Wilson, a home-care worker from Richmond.

Wilson said people can’t save for the future if they have to work two or three jobs just to get by. “I can’t go on vacation. I can’t even go to the grocery store.”

SB 1200 was defeated Monday on a 19-21 vote.

The vote didn’t stop New Virginia Majority from meeting with legislators on other key issues such as paid medical leave for all, redistricting reforms, no-excuse absentee voting and in-state college tuition and driving privileges for Virginia residents despite their immigration status.

“We’re fighting to get the privilege of driving,” said Elena Camacho, an activist for immigrants’ rights.

HB 2025 would grant driving privileges to Virginia residents who meet certain criteria, even if they have been living in the United States illegally.

“The benefits would be security on the streets,” Camacho said. “People would know who is driving, and they can know the record of the people.”

After marching to the Capitol, activists spent the afternoon meeting in small groups with legislators, sharing personal stories and discussing legislative proposals.

“If they say no today, that doesn’t stop us tomorrow,” Hutchinson said.

Panel OKs Bill to Restrict Tethering Animals

By Caitlin Morris, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — A House committee Wednesday advanced a bill requiring Virginians who tether dogs outside to give the animals more room to move.

It was one of three animal welfare bills the House Committee on Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources sent to the full House of Delegates for consideration.

All three measures were sponsored by Del. Robert Orrock, R-Caroline. Last year, Orrock unsuccessfully sponsored legislation authorizing local governments to restrict how long animals can be tethered outside and to prohibit tethering during freezing weather.

Under current law, if an animal is tethered outside, the rope or chain must be at least three times the length of the animal as measured from nose to tail. HB 1827 would make the requirement four times the length of the animal or 15 feet, whichever is longer. Moreover, the tether could not weigh more than one-tenth of the animal’s body weight.

The measure would not apply to a leash used in taking an animal on a walk.

The committee voted 19-2 in favor of the bill.

Also, the panel unanimously approved a proposal to change the legal definition of “adequate shelter for animals” in the Code of Virginia.

Currently, adequate shelter is defined as a space that protects animals from “the adverse effects” of heat or cold. HB 1625 would change the definition to specify protection “from exposure to” heat or cold.

“A very simple, three-word change,” Orrock said. “But I think it gives significant additional powers to animal control to intervene before the suffering of an animal occurs.”

At the suggestion of the state attorney general’s office, Orrock is also sponsoring HB 1626, which takes aim at cockfighting. The bill says that when animal control officers find domesticated birds, such as roosters, tethered, they can presume that the birds are being used for animal fighting.

Del. Debra H. Rodman, D-Henrico, raised concerns about farmers who may tether fowl.

“Are we sure tethering is when people are cockfighting?” Rodman asked when the bill was discussed during a subcommittee meeting Monday. “I had chickens in Guatemala … and you tether your chickens on the way to market.”

The bill would allow Animal Control to investigate at their discretion, said Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach. A court hearing would take place within 10 days, and the animal would be released to its owner if no evidence of animal fighting was found. This may help protect the rights of farmers while giving animal control officers more authority in animal fighting investigations, legislators said.

The committee approved the bill, 16-2.

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