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Madison Manske

Lawmakers Call for Improvements in Foster Care


Delegate Emily Brewer (R) and Senator Monty Mason (D) chaired the first-ever Foster Care caucus. Photo by Madison Manske.

By Kathleen Shaw and Madison Manske, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. — The first-ever bipartisan foster care caucus convened Tuesday to provide legislators the opportunity to learn about the various demanding issues in child welfare.

Nine bills and two budget amendments before this year’s General Assembly session seek to improve Virginia’s foster care services. The co-chairs of the caucus — Del. Emily Brewer, R-Suffolk, and Sen. Montgomery ‘Monty’ Mason, D-Williamsburg — said the group is committed to putting the commonwealth’s children first.

“It’s going to be a long-term solution through legislation, through advocacy and working through partnership groups to make sure that we’re making every single Virginia foster care youth have the most normalized experience, achieving normalcy as part of our goal,” Brewer said.

The urgent focus on Virginia’s foster care system comes after a report by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, the General Assembly’s research arm, ranked the state’s social service policies as among the worst nationally. Virginia spends $500 million annually on the 5,300 children in foster care. The budget amendments call for another $3 million, which sponsors believe would reduce the number of youths in the Virginia Department of Social Services system by encouraging families to take over guardianship after children are removed from their primary home.

In terms of legislation, Brewer is sponsoring measures such as HB 2208, which would make it easier for relatives to adopt children. AndMason has introduced SB 1678 and SB 1679, which would align the Code of Virginia with the federal Family First Prevention Services Act of 2018.

Some legislators have personal ties to the issue: Brewer and Del. Christopher Collins, R-Frederick, were adopted; and Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince Williams, is a foster parent. Carroll Foy has filed HB 2162, which would ensure that families are notified when a child enters the Virginia Department of Social Services system.

“Virginia has one of the lowest kinship placements of only 6 percent while nationally it’s 30 percent,” Carroll Foy said. “And we all know that when a child is placed with family, that lessens the amount of trauma and instability that that child has to encounter.”

When children are removed from their first familial residence, their options include foster care or going to a relative in a practice called kinship divergence. HB 2162 is a move toward increasing familial guardianship. Kinship divergence in Virginia is at a low because the families do not receive any financial assistance, while foster families receive a maintenance payment of $700 a month.

The Family First Prevention Services Act was adopted last year as part of the federal Bipartisan Budget Act. The law’s goals are keeping children safe, strengthening families and reducing the urgency for foster care when needed. Virginia would be the first state to implement the act.

Voices for Virginia’s Children is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy group concerned about the foster care system. The group conducted a kinship care tour across Virginia last year to hear what kind of issues foster care families encounter.

“We learned that the majority of children who are going to live with a relative are doing so because of substance abuse,” said Allison Gilbreath, a policy analyst for the organization. “I know that we see the statistics, but it was one thing to see almost every single family that raised their hand said that their child was using opioids.”

Youth in foster care face various obstacles, including financial assistance, mental health services and legal restrictions such as access to an attorney. It can be difficult, for example, for young adults in foster care to get a driver’s license — a problem Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, hopes to address with her bill, SB 1139.

“We want our children when they age out of foster care to be able to have a normal experience and to have opportunities for jobs and education, and part of that is really gaining a driver’s license,” Favola said.

Advocates Seek More Access to Medical Marijuana

By Madison Manske, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- As other states have relaxed their laws against marijuana, citizens across Virginia gathered here Saturday to discuss how to persuade the General Assembly to legalize medical and recreational marijuana in the commonwealth.

About 150 people, including health care providers and attorneys, attended the Virginia 2019 Cannabis Conference, held by the Virginia chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Virginia NORML advocates decriminalizing possession of marijuana and regulating medical and recreational-use production and sales of the substance.

Members of NORML are hopeful after Gov. Ralph Northam voiced support for decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana during his State of the Commonwealth speech on Wednesday, the first day of the General Assembly’s 2019 session.

“We want to keep people safe. But we shouldn’t use valuable law enforcement time, or costly prison space, on laws that don’t enhance public safety,” the governor said in his speech. “Current law imposes a maximum 30 days in jail for a first offense of marijuana possession.”

So far, lawmakers have proposed six bills to decriminalize simple marijuana possession. For example, HB 2371, sponsored by Del. Steve Heretick, D-Portsmouth, and HB 2373, by Del. Lee Carter, D-Prince William, would legalize marijuana for Virginians 21 and older and have the state operate retail marijuana stores. Under such proposals, Virginians under 21 who are caught with marijuana would have to pay a civil penalty.

Most attendees at the conference, held at the Delta by Marriott hotel, seemed particularly interested in medical marijuana and how to access it without traveling to another state.

Lorene Davidson of Richmond works in anesthesia as a nurse practitioner. She came to the conference because of her ongoing struggle with antidepressants, which she found were bad for her liver.

“I’m looking mostly for a way to find out more about getting a medical card and furthering getting that taken care of,” Davidson said.

As a speaker at the event, Melanie Seifert Davis of Richmond shared the story of her 10-year-old daughter Madison, who was diagnosed with ependymoma brain cancer in 2014.

“Although I’m not new to the world of cannabis, I’m brand new to the world of cannabis reform,” Davis said.

Madison is on four different cannabis-based products including CBD, THC, THCA and FECO (full extract cannabis oil) to help with seizures and the cancer itself, Davis said.

“Today and for every tomorrow I’m given, I will fill seven capsules with high doses of four different cannabis medications and watch as Madison swallows each one,” Davis said. “Science, research and experience in my heart all know that it can and will and has helped her.”

At the conference, Davis said the family recently received good news about Madison’s cancer: Four of the five tumors were gone.

“Cannabis is an important and essential part of why she is still here and still her, five years into this battle for her life,” Davis shared. “Cannabis is why she has never, not even once, suffered from the nausea, vomiting or seizures that are expected side effects of her chemo.”

Not only does Davis’ daughter suffer from cancer, but her son, Aiden, has Crohn’s disease. Aiden also uses cannabis to ease the pain of everyday life, Davis said.

“I fight because when I told my son about today, the first thing he said with legitimate fear in his voice was, ‘Mom, you can’t tell them those things. You can’t tell them about Maddie’s medicine. Cannabis is illegal. I need you; you can’t go to jail,’” Davis said.

Madison has been on cannabis products since June 2017. Davis said she gets Madison and Aiden’s cannabis from a licensed doctor in California.

Jenn Michelle Pedini, the executive director for Virginia NORML, said progress had been made in getting the state to expand access to medical cannabis.

According to the Virginia Board of Pharmacy, patients and their legal guardians can register to obtain such products if they have a certification issued by a physician.

“In 2016, we passed a bill that let us go forth and write a regulatory program that was based on Connecticut’s then-program, which was also low-THC, extraction-based products only and served to a small set of patients,” Pedini said.

In 2018, the General Assembly passed a law allowing practitioners to issue certifications for the use of cannabis-based products to alleviate symptoms “of any diagnosed condition or disease determined by the practitioner to benefit from such use.”

The Board of Pharmacy has given approval to pharmaceutical companies to open five dispensaries across the state where CBD and THC-A oils will be sold to authorized patients.

Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, has filed a bill (HB 2245) to double the number of medical cannabis dispensaries.

Faculty Members Lobby Legislators on Higher Education Issues

By Emily Holter and Madison Manske, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Faculty members from colleges and universities across Virginia converged on the Capitol on Thursday, urging legislators to provide more funding for higher education and ensure affordable college degrees for future generations of students.

Higher Education Advocacy Day drew professors like Brian Turner, who chairs the political science department at Randolph-Macon College. He noted that the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia has developed a plan to guide the colleges and universities in the commonwealth.

“The Virginia Plan for Higher Education’s goal for Virginia is to be the best-educated state by 2030,” Turner said.

To make that a reality, faculty members asked members of the General Assembly to allocate money for salary increases, boost tuition assistance and increase student access to higher education.

In December, Gov. Ralph Northam proposed amending the state budget by giving $1 billion to higher education, including increasing tuition aid. Many public institutions in Virginia are hoping that with higher salaries, they will be able to offer a higher-quality education to students.

Low salaries make it hard to compete for prominent faculty members with other well-known institutions, Turner said.

As a group, Virginia’s college and university faculty members said they support a bill by Del. David Bulova, D-Fairfax, to increase transparency on gifts that public institutions receive from donors that are subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

Turner said House Bill 2386 would help ensure that donations enhance the curriculum and provide more accountability on how institutions spend their money.

Speaking with delegates and senators, some faculty members also expressed their concerns over Title IX policies. Some have questions about legislation sponsored by Del. Joseph Lindsey, D-Norfolk, pertaining to accusations of sexual violence on campus.

Lindsey has introduced two bills (HB 1830 and HB 1831) that would allow students to have attorneys present at any campus disciplinary hearing or sexual assault hearing.

Another higher education issue is a bill proposed by Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, that would prohibit public colleges and universities from asking student applicants about their criminal history. Under HB 2471, schools could not “deny admission to any applicant on the basis of any criminal history information.”

“Your criminal history should not be deterring you from being able to pursue education. And in my bill, there’s a line that says this is really about the application,” Aird said. “If they do get admitted and let’s say, for some instance, you have a student that wants to live in on-campus housing, the institution can then request their criminal history.”

In making the rounds at Capitol Square, participants in Higher Education Advocacy Day spoke with Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Fredericksburg, about his bill to give students a voice on tuition increases.

Under SB 1204, “No increase of undergraduate tuition or mandatory fees approved by a governing board of a public institution of higher education shall take effect unless such increase receives an affirmative vote of at least two-thirds of undergraduate students enrolled in such institution.”

Faculty members fear that would make it impossible to raise tuition.

“I don’t think you could round up two-thirds of the student body to vote for free beer,” Turner said.

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