CHARLESTON, W.Va. — DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch says the Legislature is a partner that can help improve the lives of the 7,000 children in West Virginia’s foster care system.

“There are several bill we’ve already been made aware of that are going to come out this year on child welfare,” Crouch told reporters last week.

But Crouch does not welcome the involvement of a New York-based nonprofit that sued the state in federal court earlier this year over its handling of child protective services.

“We’re going to fix the problem. We just don’t think they have a role in this,” he said.

West Virginia challenges

Crouch, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Resources, as among the speakers Friday at the annual Legislative Lookahead presented by the West Virginia Press Association.

West Virginia’s foster care system has been under increased scrutiny as the number of children in it continues to grow. Crouch ruefully acknowledged the state is number one per capita in children being taken out of the home.

The Washington Post ran a front page story last week focusing on “The foster care children growing up inside detention centers.” The dateline for the story in the print edition was Madison, West Virginia.

Meanwhile, a state audit found that West Virginia struggles to keep up with child abuse and neglect cases. The annual turnover rate for child protective services workers in West Virginia continues to be about one third.

“We’re going to fix this problem, Crouch said. “We’re going to improve the child welfare system.”

Crouch told reporters that about half of of children in state custody are taken out of home because of a parental substance use disorder issue, 35 percent because of neglect and 15 percent child behavior problems.

Legislative attention

Last year the Legislature passed a multifaceted foster care bill.

The part that received the most attention — and controversy — placed the health care of foster children into a managed care program, now run by Aetna.

Advocates for the change said it would better keep track of health, dental and vaccination records as children, unfortunately, move from home to home — particularly as West Virginia continues efforts to bring back children from out of state facilities.

Another aspect of that bill established a new ombudsman for families affected by the foster care system. The ombudsman, Pamela Woodman-Kahler was appointed last year.

Lawmakers are now planning to build on more changes.

Amy Summers

“In continuing our efforts to improve foster care in West Virginia, we have been investigating different aspects of the system during our interim committee meeting process,” House Majority Leader Amy Summers stated in a news release a few weeks ago.

“The additional reforms we’re investigating include codifying the foster families’ rights, and removing an additional 45-day waiting period in the adoption process that the courts and families feel is unnecessary.”

When the Joint Committee on Health meets Monday during interim meetings just prior to the start of the regular session, it will review several proposals.

Those include changes to the adoption process, some recommendations that relate to child protective service workers, providing more authority to the foster care ombudsman and updating the foster care laws.

Ron Stollings

State Senator Ron Stollings, D-Boone, is a doctor and candidate for governor. He spoke Friday on the Legislative Lookahead panel about the interrelated drug addiction and foster care issues.

Stollings said the state needs to examine its level of financial support for kinship and grandparents who take on foster care. And he said the state needs to strengthen in-home services for children. And Stollings said focus should be on mental health and depression treatment for parents.

“We can’t continue to think we can cut our way out of these issues,” Stollings said.

Crouch recommendations 

Crouch said the state is focusing its efforts on keeping children closer to home, preferably with their own parents.

He said the state has been adding child protective services workers but acknowledged the problem in keeping them.

“This is one of the hardest jobs in the state of West Virginia,” he said. “It is very, very hard on the individuals who do this. So turnover is high. Some people can’t do this at all. So we’re looking at a way to select better on the front end.”

In an interview after the panel discussion, Crouch expressed optimism about the ombudsman and welcomed the legislation to strengthen that role.

“I think the bill will give her a little bit more authority and that’s fine,” he said. “I’m in favor of that.”

Crouch was thoughtful about legislation that could shorten the wait period to become a foster parent. He didn’t explicitly endorse or reject legislation that would loosen the requirements for foster care, but said he understands the motivation.

“There’s a lot of criticism in terms of how stringent the foster care program is. People need to remember that it’s that rigid for the safety of the children,” Crouch said.

He continued, “There are people saying we need to make it easier for folks and have less training and make it easier for folks to get into the foster care program.

“And that’s because we don’t have enough foster care families. Now, we have a lot but not all of the stay in foster care. And I can understand that. You know, we have a difficult time placing adolescents for example. Families who take adolescents have a tough time many times, and that eventually puts them in a position of they don’t want to try that again. It was so traumatic for them.”

The lawsuit

West Virginia’s child welfare system was hit with a federal class action lawsuit in September by a nonprofit litigator called A Better Childhood , contending the state has “significant administrative problems that hinder its ability to operate effectively.”

State officials have moved to dismiss the lawsuit, but Crouch also said he’s ready to fight it.

“I want to go to court. I’m fine to go to court with regard to ABC. I don’t think they have a role in this. We’ll show our program to the judge. They want to fight this in the press,” Crouch told reporters Friday.

“And again, they didn’t come and talk to us. They didn’t ask us what we were doing. They came into this state to look for clients. And there are children in every state who fall through the cracks. Every state.”