CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The chairman of the state’s Juvenile Justice Commission strongly criticized the state Department of Health and Human Resources Wednesday for not attending a public forum concerning child welfare reform.
Putnam County Circuit Judge Phillip Stowers, who serves as the commission’s chair, opened the forum with some stinging comments for the agency that has recently made changes in the contracts with providers of emergency shelters and residential-group care facilities for children with behavioral problems.
“The failure of the DHHR to appear and have an open and public dialogue should be disappointing to the public, this commission, the judiciary and most importantly West Virginia families,” Judge Stowers said.
DHHR Secretary Karen Bowling told MetroNews Tuesday negotiations continue with providers and her agency wouldn’t attend the forum.
“I just think change is hard right now. Having a public forum about our contracts–we won’t be there,” Bowling said, adding the changes, which have a goal of keeping more children with behavioral problems in a community-based setting over a residential-type (group home) setting, will work.
Responding to the MetroNews article, Judge Stowers said he would have liked to heard more from the agency.
“The statement claimed the data will prove these changes are headed in the right direction, yet the DHHR fails to appear today to share the clarity of their vision,” Stowers said.
The Juvenile Justice Commission has previously agreed with the 2015 legislation (SB 393) that puts a structure in place to decrease the number of children placed outside the home, but there have been some obstacles, Stowers said.
“DHHR foster homes are now at capacity and out of home placement has continued to grow. None of this is caused by the courts,” Stowers said. “It is a combination of a lack of appropriate community-based services, steep economic decline and the drug epidemic that is decimating families in West Virginia.”
Earlier this year, the commission asked the DHHR to delay the implementation of the new contracts, which may put some residential-setting providers out of business but the agency refused. The situation is a cause for concern, Stowers said.
“When a judge is considering placing a child that decision occurs in real time. When a child is not safe at home and the court needs a facility immediately anything less is unacceptable to both the court and the public,” Stowers said.
DHHR Secretary Bowling told MetroNews 14 contract agreements have been signed thus far with emergency shelters and residential providers and negotiations continue with seven other providers.
According to the DHHR, there were more than 5,100 children in state custody with 276 of those children placed at out-of-state facilities. There were 822 kids in residential care settings. More than 200 children have been referred to the agency’s new Safe at Home program which began last fall.