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McDonnell criticized for veto of Virginia abused-child schooling bill

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell has found himself on the opposite side of advocacy groups spanning the political spectrum after vetoing a bill that would allow abused or neglected children living with a relative to enroll in the school district where the relative lives.

The measure, backed by groups such as the Virginia Education Association, the Virginia Poverty Law Center, and the Family Foundation, passed 76-17 in the Republican-controlled House of Delegates and 38-1 in the evenly split Senate.

Sen. George L. Barker, Fairfax Democrat and the sponsor of the legislation, called the veto "anti-child, anti-family, anti-taxpayer" and "inconsistent with Virginia law." Mr. Barker and his wife, Jane, have been foster parents to 13 children, in addition to having two of their own.

Nationally, 26 percent of children in foster care are placed with relatives, but Virginia's rate of 6 percent is the lowest in the country, according to a study released Wednesday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a private charity that works to help disadvantaged children. More than 2.7 million children across the country were raised by grandparents or other relatives at some point in their lives, and the number has jumped 18 percent over the past decade.

Mr. McDonnell, a Republican, amended the bill to allow local school districts to require the caregiver to get a court order authorizing the relative to make educational decisions regarding the child. The measure passed by the legislature would have allowed the relative to make educational decisions after obtaining power of attorney over the children from the parent.

"I knew he had had reservations because he sent down amendments," said Victoria Cobb, president of the conservative Family Foundation. "Hopefully we can move this forward and get it done next year."

Wendell Roberts, staff attorney for the Virginia School Boards Association, which opposed the bill, said he and other stakeholders had been working on it since last July. The issue of custody and who is responsible for the child was never agreed upon.

"All of us are interested in educating kids — we really are — but we just couldn't come to an agreement on this particular issue," he said.

Mr. Roberts disputed arguments that obtaining a court order is time-consuming and expensive but said that exploring the logistics of getting custody and ways to streamline the process could be topics for discussion going forward.

Regardless, various legal groups in the state opposed Mr. McDonnell's amendment, and the Senate rejected it, 31-8.

In his veto letter, Mr. McDonnell wrote that the state's foster care policy requires family members be considered first when an out-of-home placement is sought and acknowledged research that shows diverting children away from foster care to family members for temporary care provides the best outcomes.

He also called an informal custody arrangement "legally questionable" and said a power of attorney can be revoked at any time, but a court order can only be changed by a judge.

"Given the often fluid and tragic circumstances that typically generate kinship custody arrangements, a court order provides children and families with the stability, certainty and oversight to ensure that kinship arrangements are necessary or appropriate in light of changing circumstances while protecting Virginia's school divisions from being entangled in custody disputes," he wrote.

Robley S. Jones with the Virginia Education Association said the bill's pluses outweighed any minuses.

"We just felt like the need to help children that were in dire circumstances outweighed the administrative concerns," Mr. Jones said.

Mr. McDonnell added that the state's Commission on Youth did not endorse any legislation during this year's session and has created a Kinship Care Advisory Group to "examine the broader policy implications" this year.

"We think it's good policy," Ms. Cobb said. "This was intended to be a short-term solution in cases, and it seems like something the law can accommodate."

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