A new report by the West Virginia Legislative Auditor includes this disturbing finding concerning child abuse and neglect:
“The state has led the nation or placed second in the incidence of child abuse and neglect fatalities from 2000 through 2011, and the rate of child deaths in the state has been higher than the national rate for eight of these years.”
In 2011, the latest year for which figures were available for the audit, West Virginia had 13 child fatalities that were attributable to abuse and neglect. That works out to twice the national average per capita.
But that’s just the fatalities. Every year, hundreds of West Virginia children suffer because they are in homes where adults can’t or won’t take care of them, or, worse yet, harm them.
The responsibility for interceding and protecting these children falls to the Child Protective Services (CPS) division of the Bureau for Children and Families (BCF). But the audit found that CPS is falling well short of fulfilling its mission.
For example, reports of child abuse and neglect are supposed to be investigated within two weeks, or 72 hours if the child is in imminent danger. However, in 2011 CPS met that timeline just half the time.
Additionally, the audit found BCF’s decentralized system for receiving reports of child abuse is wildly inefficient. A centralized system would require 55 workers instead of the current 120, freeing up more case workers to investigate allegations of abuse.
The audit says BCF has been studying a centralized reporting system for six years, but moved no closer to the upgrade.
Case worker turnover is a huge problem for the agency. More than one-fourth (28 percent) of the workers responsible for investigating child abuse left their positions last year. For trainees, the turnover rate was 54 percent.
The high turnover means children and families frequently have to develop new working relationships with different case workers.
CPS workers have challenging, thankless jobs with low pay. One CPS worker identified as “KM” posted a comment to our story about the audit saying, “Every day, CPS workers are facing unknown situations. You may go out on a referral regarding a dirty house and find yourself in the middle of a meth lab, or dealing with mentally unstable individuals.”
State Senator Don Cookman (D-Hampshire) is a retired circuit judge who saw firsthand the problem of child abuse and neglect and the extreme challenges faced by case workers.
“They’re underpaid. They’re overworked,” Cookman told me on Talkline last week. “I can’t imagine going to the places that they go and trying to work with families (especially) when they have to take the child out of the home.”
Government can’t solve all the problems associated with broken homes, substance abuse, neglectful and abusive parents, but it does have a responsibility to help protect those who cannot protect themselves.
The audit shows that the agency needs modernization and leadership. BCF Interim Commissioner Susan Hage has been on the job all of three weeks, but she’s saying the right things.
“We are taking this very, very seriously and are committed to making changes,” she told lawmakers last week.
Let’s hope so. There are a lot of children in West Virginia who are depending on it.