Special Advisor for Children and Families in the Governor’s Administration
As a foster turned adoption mom herself, Janet’s inspiration for creating her nonprofit, Virginia’s Kids Belong, was personal. This nonprofit aims to empower the community to improve the experiences and outcomes for children within the foster care system. Janet also serves in the Governor’s office to help further transform Virginia’s foster care system and expand the options for children’s welfare and mental health resources. In this Sisterhood Spotlight, Janet Kelly discusses her inspiration for VA Kids Belong, her role within the Governor’s administration, the Safe and Sound Task Force, and important information around fostering and adopting that Virginia’s Women+girls should know.
You are the Founder of the nonprofit VA Kids Belong. What inspired you to create this organization and can you tell us a little more about it?
Yes! Virginia’s Kids Belong (VKB) dramatically improves the experience and outcomes for children in foster care because VKB believes every child deserves a safe, loving family where they belong. Its unique model empowers faith, government, and business leaders to be part of the solution. VKB’s signature program is the “I Belong Project,” which highlights kids in foster care who need a forever family. Videos of kids who are waiting to be adopted are at vakidsbelong.org.
Our personal “foster to adopt” story led to a healthy discontent with how kids, families, and workers fare in our child welfare system. I still serve on the board of VKB because I deeply believe in its mission, and the VKB team is more effective than ever.
You currently serve as the Special Advisor for Children and Families within the Health and Human Resources department of the governor’s administration. Can you tell us more about what you do in this role?
It’s my dream job and I couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunity to give back in this way. Currently, children’s mental health and child welfare reform are my top priorities. The Governor launched his transformational behavioral health plan, Right Help, Right Now, almost a year ago. Virginia is 47th in access for children’s mental health services, which explains the long waiting lists to see a counselor or specialist. The increasing rates of anxiety and depression among our youth are alarm bells for action. I’m grateful for the Governor and First Lady’s leadership on this topic and excited about some very tangible things coming soon that will improve the mental health of kids in the Commonwealth.
In 2022, Governor Youngkin created the Safe and Sound Task Force to help create safe housing placements for children in foster care. How much progress has this task force seen since its establishment and what are your continued goals that you hope to reach?
Sadly, the year before Governor Youngkin came into office, over 300 kids slept in a local social services agency office, were placed in a hotel, or kept in an emergency room because our system simply didn’t have the right kinds of places for them to go. Most of these children had very high needs and were not able to live with a family until those needs had been met. When the Governor heard about it, he was determined to fix it- so he launched the Safe and Sound Task Force on his 74th day in office. We went “all in” with the best and brightest from the appropriate state agencies and within 90 days, we had reduced the number of displaced kids by 89%. We haven’t solved the problem completely, and won’t until we enact systemic changes, but many states still have hundreds of kids each year in offices.
Next, we hope to gain sustainable traction and go upstream with a renewed effort toward placing kids in extended, kinship families to keep kids out of foster care and with familiar connections when possible.
What are some things about foster care and adoption that Virginia’s Women+girls should know?
First, the main goal of foster care is the safety and wellbeing of kids, which often means reunification with their birth parents after a period of time or their extended family, called “kinship” families. When that is not possible, a child’s parental rights are terminated, and the child is eligible for adoption. Over 700 kids are legally free for adoption right now in Virginia.
Second, Virginia is 47th in permanency meaning too many kids age out of foster care at 18 without being adopted. Can you imagine being on your own right after high school? Who walks those girls down the aisle, who shows up when they have a flat tire, or helps them prep for job interviews? You never outgrow your need for a family and yet these kids are without belonging.
Lastly, 50% of foster families quit within the first year due to a lack of social support. Not everyone can foster or adopt but everyone can do something. Meals, gift cards, babysitting, or running errands really makes a difference. If you know of a kinship, foster or adoptive family, or a birth family who is struggling, having a bias toward action and committing to an act of kindness would mean the difference between fostering longer or closing a foster home.
What is your favorite childhood activity?
I loved to laugh, sing, practice gymnastics, be outside, and hang out with my friends and close-knit family. I knew from an early age I wanted to go into public service, and volunteered every day after school when I was 16 on a NC House of Representatives race.
About Janet Kelly
The Honorable Janet Vestal Kelly has spent over 25 years in the public, private, and non-profit sectors, specializing in leading multi-sector projects to transform lives. Her public sector roles include serving as a Press Secretary on Capitol Hill, Chief of Staff in the Attorney General’s Office, and as Secretary of the Commonwealth for Governor Bob McDonnell. She is married to a veteran and fellow public servant and has 3 kids ranging in age from elementary school to college. Her kids are, without a doubt, her best work. Her weekend time is spent on neighborhood walks, enjoying time with the wisest, funniest and most loyal girlfriends around, and rotating couch cuddles between her kids and black labrador, Rhett. She is currently reading Bono's Surrender and listening to the Being Known podcast.