CHARLESTON, W.Va. — After a long and emotional debate, the House of Delegates passed its foster care bill and sent it to the Senate.

Both sides agreed the 44-page HB 2010 isn’t perfect. But both sides agreed they want to do the best thing for the kids. But one side said the best thing is to pass it and the other side said the best thing is to kill it.

Joe Ellington

Health chair Joe Ellington, R-Mercer, described the bill and listed the major points: A $225 million Department of Health and Human Resources contract with a managed care organization to manage the children’s healthcare; an ombudsman to defend the rights of the foster children and parents; performance-based contracting with placement agencies to place children in foster homes; a study of kinship care for foster children; a protection for parents in medically assisted substance abuse treatment from termination of parental rights solely because of that situation; moving from an annual foster home assessment to a three-year to reduce the burden on foster parents.

Ellington said one aim of the bill is to keep more foster kids in West Virginia.

Delegate Steve Westfall, R-Jackson, said he and Ellington have been in conversations about ways to improve the foster care system for several years. Three of his adopted children are from the foster care system.

He cited some grim numbers DHHR has presented to committees considering the bill. The number of children in foster care has climbed from 4,300 in 2013 to 7,200 last year; 500 of those are house out of state.

Steve Westfall

Westfall raised a black plastic trash bag and said that’s what foster kids use for suitcases; they move so much.

“This doesn’t solve the problem,” he said. “But it is a big start.”

DHHR has said the foster care problem is too big for it to manage, which is why it wants to outsource to a for-profit managed care organization (MCO) and has a nearly 800-page contract already prepared. DHHR told legislators it’s going with an MCO whether the bill passes or not.

Delegate Barbara Evans Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, said the problem isn’t the fault of the overworked, underappreciated Child Protective Services who have huge, unwieldly caseloads.
“We shouldn’t be making profits off of our most vulnerable children.”

Delegates Amanda Estep-Burton, D-Kanawha, and Danielle Walker, D-Monongalia, both complained that no foster families were included in the shaping of the bill.

Kayla Kessinger

But Delegate Kayla Kessinger, R-Fayette and lead sponsor, said she’s spent a year talking to all manner of people with a stake in the issue, including foster children and parents. DHHR treats kids like numbers.

“We are in a state of emergency,” she said. “The conversation shouldn’t be about corporations and bottom lines, but about the kids.”

Delegate Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock, works at a residential care center that also functions as a charter school. He’s seen what kinds of traumas the kids have to deal with – including drug overdoses, overdoses by their parents, parents dead of overdoses.

MCOs don’t have the best track record, he said. “This bill is not really going to correct the problem because the problem is far deeper than most of us recognize.” Partly, it’s a lack of purpose in people’s lives.

Delegate Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha, talked about the 10 percent profit –$22.5 million – the MCO will make and advocated for attempting a more limited pilot project before going for a statewide contract.

WV Legislative Photography

Lisa Zukoff

Delegate Lisa Zukoff, D-Marshall, said her heart was saying no but her head said yes. DHHR is a behemoth and it’s been broken for the 35 years she’s worked with it. A change is needed and she would reluctantly vote yes.

Bill proponents cited some of the other grim numbers DHHR related to make their point action is needed now: 43 percent of kids entering foster care are 5 or younger.

Of those raised in foster care: 39 percent have had a mental health diagnosis in the past year; 44 percent have had substance abuse or dependence; less than half attain a high school diploma; less than half are employed; 68 percent of males and 40.5 percent of females have been arrested since leaving foster care.

Closing the debate, Ellington pointed out that foster parents don’t have to choose an MCO for their foster children’s medical care, they can stay with Medicaid; 400,000 of the 500,000 state residents on Medicaid use an MCO and it has saved the state money.

Addressing the entire bill, flaws and all, he said, “This is just one option. It’s not the cure.”

The vote was 67-32. Nine Democrats voted yes; one Republican voted no.

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