West Virginia has a legal responsibility to take care of children who are being abused and neglected. State Code 49-1-105 specifically says it is the obligation of the state child welfare system to “assure each child care, safety and guidance; serve the mental and physical welfare of a child; preserve and strengthen the child family ties; (and) recognize the fundamental rights of children and parents.”
That’s a heavy task, and one that is growing increasingly challenging in West Virginia, as Brad McElhinny reports.
The number of referrals of child abuse and neglect cases in West Virginia has risen from just under 21,000 in fiscal year 2015 to nearly 27,000 in FY 2018. That’s an increase of 28 percent. The opioid crisis has likely contributed to the rise. The number of child neglect cases reported involving substance abuse has risen by 79 percent during the same period.
Child Protective Services (CPS) workers are stretched to the limit. A legislative audit released this week found “The increase in referrals has increased the amount of work each CPS worker is responsible for and has only complicated issues with an already overtaxed workforce.”
The workload, low salary (the starting pay is $31,164) and job stress make it difficult to find and retain caseworkers. Only 82 percent of CPS positions were filled at the end of last fiscal year. The turnover rate is 27 percent.
That’s too high, but it is down considerably from the 2018 rate of 41 percent. That’s because the Department of Health and Human Resources has increased salaries ten percent beyond the state-mandated 10 percent increase over the last two years and added an incentive pay program. DHHR has also added 60 CPS positions to reduce the workload.
DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch says the increased pay, additional case workers and stepped up recruiting efforts are making a difference. “These are only a part of the ongoing efforts to try to improve West Virginia’s child welfare system.”
Still, the audit shows CPS is struggling mightily to get to at-risk children in a timely fashion. The audit found that in 2018, case workers met the requirement of a face-to-face interview with the child or children within 14 days just 50 percent of the time.*
The staffing shortage is an issue here, but also sometimes it is difficult to track down a family “due to missing or incorrect information or the family not being home when the CPS worker arrives.”
These are deeply troubling statistics, but not surprising. The opioid crisis is straining social services at all levels and CPS workers are among those on the front lines. Crouch calls them “unsung heroes and… the backbone of our child welfare system.”
“Child Protective Service workers have one of the most important jobs in our state and they do all they can to make sure that every child is safe and protected,” he said.
DHHR under Secretary Crouch has been proactive in efforts to attract and retain CPS workers. He’s making progress, but more needs to be done. As the audit shows, too many children are waiting too long for someone to come to their rescue.
*(Case workers are required to meet with children and develop a protection plan within 72 hours if there is an allegation of imminent danger or of serious physical abuse.)