CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Lawmakers are working the kinks out of bills meant to further address West Virginia’s child welfare system.
West Virginia’s foster care system has grown to 7,000 children, causing increased legislative concern. The number of child protective services workers, meanwhile, continues to have a turnover rate of almost 30 percent.
Members of the Joint Health Committee got previews Monday of four bills dealing with foster care or adoption. The committee gathered during interim meetings and the bills will be introduced once the regular session starts later this week.
Legislators had a lot of questions about whether some specific provisions were fully thought out or if there would be unintended consequences.
That’s an advantage of using the interim sessions to preview bills, said Majority Leader Amy Summers, R-Taylor.
“That’s why we talk about them in interim committees so we can flesh those things out and say ‘Oh, maybe that’s not written well’ or ‘Maybe we need to look at that further’ so that when we do bring it up for the regular session some of those things have been worked out.”
Last year, lawmakers passed a broad-ranging bill dealing with the foster care system. It established a managed care system for the healthcare of foster children and also establishing an ombudsman for foster families, set a requirement for annual safety inspections of homes and more.
The bills discussed Monday would address several more issues.
One would make changes to the adoption process, removing the 45-day waiting period for adoptive parents and also providing more flexibility for the location of court hearings for adoption.
Another would further empower the foster care ombudsman.
“Unfortunately there was not a lot of meat on the bones in regard to the authority of that position,” staff counsel for the Health committee told lawmakers.
So the bill would provide greater detail of the ombudsman’s role.
Yet another enumerates a bill of rights for foster children. The bill would detail more than 20 rights, including the right ot be treated with respect, the ability to attend school and participate in activities, to have social contacts with people outside the foster system and the right to be free of unreasonable searches of belongings.
If a foster child believes a rights violation has occurred, staff counsel said, they may ask the ombudsman to examine the issue.
And still another focuses on child protective services workers, whose turnover rate in West Virginia remains very high. The bill aims to improve the pay for different categories of CPS workers. Qualifications are reexamined too.
“That’s not a done deal,” Summers said. “We’ll be working on that more about social work degrees and requirements and hear from all different sides on what we need to do with that.”
Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, likes most of the bills but has concerns about some of the details.
“Most of the content of these are pretty good. For example, I really like the expansion of the description of what the ombudsman is supposed to do,” she said.
“Sounds like an impossible job, but I think it’s really important to spell out what that person has the authority to do.”
Fleischauer asked several questions about specifics in the bills, though. One was a section of the foster care legislation requiring families to provide notice to the Department of Health and Human Resources if they plan extended trips out of state.
That caused lawmakers like Fleischauer to ask about trips to a different part of West Virginia versus travel just across the state line. There were more questions about whether an advance notification requirement would be realistic for any busy family.
“We do need to know where those children are, but the wording is really important and it’s not ready for primetime,” Fleischauer said. “You could probably figure out how to do it and make it not so broad.”