CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia grandparents who have stepped in to raise their grandchildren amid the state’s addiction crisis need continued legislative support, said a leader of the Healthy Grandfamilies program.
But Bonnie Dunn left open what that help might be.
“I just ask that you seriously consider doing something,” Dunn told lawmakers on Wednesday afternoon. “I’m not sure what that something is. I think I’m going to leave it up to you all.”
But the challenges are enormous, she said.
With more than 7,000 West Virginia children in foster care, more and more grandparents are having to step in. She said West Virginia ranks second in the percentage of grandparents responsible for their grandchildren. Arkansas is Number 1.
More and more of those grandparents may be taking in as many as six, seven, eight or nine children, Dunn said.
“I don’t think anybody in this room is prepared to do this,” Dunn said. “If the answer to that is a resounding no then we need to think about what we can do for families in West Virginia who are going through this.”
Over more than an hour Wednesday afternoon, Dunn addressed members of the Committee on Senior, Children and Family Issues. Among the members of the public who listened in were members of AARP West Virginia, clad in red.
The committee was not considering a particular bill, but delegates are familiar with the challenges of foster care in each of their communities.
And there are some options available legislatively.
Last year, the Legislature designated $300,000 in funding for the Healthy Grandfamilies program to support training for grandparents raising children all over the state. That money came through a supplemental appropriation, meaning that it was available once other state spending priorities had been achieved.
So there is no guarantee the money will be available again, especially with predictions of a flat budget year. Dunn acknowledged it would be helpful for sustained support of the program.
And grandparents who fit into the broader category of kinship could receive direct financial support through a bill traveling through the House of Delegates that would raise the per diem for kinship families. That bill, which has already made it through the House Health and Judiciary committees, has also been assigned to Finance for assessment.
Delegate Ruth Rowan, R-Hampshire, is the chairwoman of the Committee on Senior, Children and Family Issues. She agreed that more legislative help is needed for grandparents raising children in communities all over West Virginia.
“This is a critical problem right here in our state and in my home county,” said Rowan, who described a recent conversation with three women, two of whom were raising grandchildren.
She said grandparents are suddenly finding themselves in need of know-how for social services, the welfare system or college financial aid.
“I want us to start thinking about some of the things we can do, and I want us to start acting on some of the things we can do.”
During the House of Delegates floor session on Wednesday, Delegate Jason Barrett, D-Berkeley, urged fellow legislators to find a way to fund the per diem increase for kinship families.
West Virginia needs to find a way to find homes for the 2,800 children who are in emergency shelters, group homes, transitional living or some other arrangement, he said.
That would mean coming up with about $16 million, said Barrett, one of the lead Democrats on the House Finance Committee. He made reference to a recent NBC News report on the foster care crisis in West Virginia that described a child in a particularly desperate situation.
“If anyone here thinks that we don’t have $16 million to fund this bill, I want you to take the time to picture a West Virginia child digging in a garbage can for food and then tell me — better yet, tell these children — that we don’t have $16 million.
“If it’s the will of this body that we don’t have these funds, then you need to reevaluate your priorities.”
The Committee on Senior, Children and Family Issues received brief personal comments from Donna Bennett, who is raising six kinship children — nieces and nephews — along with one grandchild. She may need to take in two more grandchildren.
“Firsthand, it is a definite struggle with finances. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do,” said Bennett, who at one point had to hold back tears.
Besides facing ongoing financial struggles, she described a constant challenge to take care of herself and her husband. With so many children, she said, taking a break is almost insurmountable.
“Even today I don’t get to do what I need to do because I have responsibilities for the children,” Bennett said.
Delegate Dianna Graves, R-Kanawha, who pushed last year for funding of the Healthy Grandfamilies program, asked what would happen if the same doesn’t happen again.
“If we don’t find funding at the state level to help you continue this program, what’s going to happen to these grandparents and grandchildren if they can’t find these resources?” Graves asked.
Dunn said grandparents would not have enough support to navigate the social safety net: “The worst case scenario is homelessness. But also children who don’t have enough to eat, struggle because they don’t have enough clothing.”