DHHR secretary on child welfare reform: “We’re going to prove to them it’s the right approach”

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — State Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Karen Bowling says she’s not going to a public forum scheduled Wednesday morning about her agency’s child welfare reform efforts.

“I just think change is hard right now. Having a public forum about our contracts—we won’t be there,” Bowling told MetroNews Tuesday afternoon.

State DHHR Secretary Karen Bowling says research shows they are doing the right thing.
State DHHR Secretary Karen Bowling says research shows they are doing the right thing.

The forum is being hosted by the Juvenile Justice Commission. The commission’s chairman, Putnam County Circuit Judge Phillip Stowers, has been critical of the DHHR’s changes to child shelter care and residential services.

“The DHHR is making contract changes involving the care and treatment of court-involved youth as if there is not a court system responsible to supervise this care, and the public should know,” Stowers said in a news release.

The changes, which have a goal of keeping more children with behavioral problems in a community-based setting than a residential-type (group home) setting, will work, Bowling said.

“Unless you’ve been educated like we have on all of this research then maybe you’re less comfortable and it’s easier to do it like we’ve always done it. But we’re going to prove to them that this is the right approach,” Bowling said.

The DHHR’s child welfare reform efforts began in 2013 after Bowling learned the state had one of the highest rates of residential treatment in the country.

“In reality it was not in the child’s best interest,” she said. “As we continued to place more children in residential care we were in essence creating more trauma for the child.”

Residential settings are more like group homes. Children with behavioral problems are sent to those types of homes in West Virginia and outside the state. In June there were 5,169 children in state custody; 4,893 located in-state and 276 are out-of-state. Those in agency emergency shelter were 171 in-state. The total in residential care were 822 including 693 in-state and 129 out-of-state, according to figures from the DHHR.

“We have relied on residential treatment as the easiest thing to do when a child needs care instead of what’s in the best interest for the child on both a short term and long term basis,” Bowling said.

The DHHR created its Safe at Home program last October and since then 220 youth have been referred for wraparound services.

The Juvenile Justice Commission has been critical of the changes and the new contracts the DHHR has offered to providers. The contracts make it difficult not only to adequately and appropriately serve youths but even to remain in business, said commission director Cindy Largent-Hill in a news release.

Bowling said good progress is being made on the new contracts with providers. Five emergency shelters and nine residential providers have signed the agreement while negotiations continue with seven other providers, according to Bowling. The continued negotiations are why she’s decided not to participate in Wednesday’s forum.

There’s still a need for residential providers but not for the long term like has been the practice for 20 years in West Virginia, Bowling said.

“The idea is to get children back to a home environment in your home community as soon as possible,” she said.

But questions about the reform remain. The Juvenile Justice Commission is holding the forum beginning at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday at the state capitol to attempt to answer some of those questions, Judge Stowers said.

“The Commission is charged by the Supreme Court to look at all systemic issues for youth placed in residential care by circuit judges. The changes to the residential care model recently proposed by the state depart from the current model of care so dramatically that substantial unanswered questions exist, and the commission must make sure the proposed changes are in the best interest of West Virginia youth placed in residential care,” Stowers said.

Bowling said her agency will do nothing to put children in unsafe situations.

“I care about these children, my team cares about these children. We’re going to do nothing but help these children. That’s our entire goal and that’s been my goal since 2013,” Bowling said. “It’s hard for me to believe they don’t understand that. That they don’t see that everything we’re doing is a step in the right direction and we are implementing policies based on national research.”

Bowling added the reform measures are budget neutral.

“It really is about holding people accountable for what they are doing. There is no savings. We are basically spending the money that we have allocated for it,” she said.

Wednesday’s forum will be in the state Senate Judiciary Committee room at the state capitol.

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