CHARLESTON, W.Va. — In the final week of the regular legislative session, West Virginia lawmakers are expressing concern about a broad-ranging foster care bill in the state Senate.
“I think this bill is important not just to the folks here in the House; I think it’s important to everybody in West Virginia,” said Delegate Jeffrey Pack, R-Raleigh, vice chairman of the House Health Committee.
With bipartisan support, the House of Delegates pushed the bill this session as the centerpiece of several bills meant to deal with West Virginia’s growing foster care population.
West Virginia’s foster care system has been growing at an alarming rate, related to the state’s struggles with drug addiction.
More than 7,000 children are in state custody. About 450 of those are out of state, mostly in group residential homes or long-term psychiatric facilities.
“I think the Senate recognizes that and they realize this isn’t something they can just push off,” Pack said. “This is something they’re going to have to take up and address.”
Delegate Jason Barrett, D-Berkeley, made an impassioned speech earlier in the session for legislation supporting foster families. On Tuesday morning, Barrett said he, too, is alarmed about the foster care bill’s status in the Senate.
Barrett contends the Senate’s majority has prioritized a new intermediate court of appeals — with an estimated startup cost of $8.5 million — instead.
“It’s very clear the Senate Republicans are turning a blind eye to the foster children that desperately need our attention and have decided to put courts over kids,” Barrett stated.
House Bill 4092 enumerates certain rights for foster families.
And it spells out more clearly what guardians ad litem, the people who officially speak on behalf of children, are required to do prior to the adjudication of the process.
That aspect is meant to provide more assurance to foster families that guardians ad litem are truly speaking with children and hearing them out.
It increases the per diem for foster families while also establishing an equivalent rate for kinship families — those who have taken in a child but who haven’t gone through certification.
Under the bill, families fostering through DHHR would be paid at least $900 per month per child placed in their home, or about $30 a day — an increase of about $300 per month. The reimbursement rate for kinship families would be raised to an equivalent amount.
The state’s share of the cost was estimated to be about $16.9 million.
With a flat budget proposed by Gov. Jim Justice, no one has specified yet how the state would come up with this additional amount.
The bill passed through three committees in the House of Delegates and then passed the full House on Feb. 18.
Pack described a Sunday meeting involving delegates, senators and stakeholders, “and the bill that they had presented was significantly different than the bill that we sent.”
He described a major reduction of the funding and significant changes to the guardian ad litem language.
“I’m not particularly thrilled with any of that,” Pack said, noting that prompted a letter from delegates to Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Trump.
In the Senate, the bill was assigned to Judiciary and then Finance but it hasn’t gotten through either one.
“We have just four days remaining in this current legislative session, and the Senate continues to show us their misguided priorities,” Barrett said.
“We sent a very loud and strong message that this was a top priority for us. Now more than 10 days later they have finally placed it on their Judiciary agenda, but with the entire funding portion of the House bill stripped out.”
The bill was at first on the Senate Judiciary agenda on Monday but then was pulled. It is back on today, but is listed last among 14 bills.
At the end of a long Senate Judiciary meeting on Monday night, Chairman Trump, R-Morgan, acknowledged the workload and briefly made reference to House priorities.
“We’ve got a big day tomorrow guys,” Trump said a little after 8:30 p.m. Monday, noting the long lineup of bills.
“We’ve got House members who want their bills. I don’t know what else we can do.”
Senate Democrats put out a statement on Monday, expressing their own concern about the status of the foster care bill.
Their statement also touched on a bill that would cap insulin co-pays for people with diabetes. That bill wound up on the Senate’s Banking and Insurance Committee agenda on Monday afternoon.
“Both bills passed the House of Delegates nearly unanimously, but have been languishing in Senate committees for several days,” said Senator Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier.
“It’s time to put our money where our hearts are. Everyone says they want these bills, it’s time for us to take action.”
Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, put out his own statement Tuesday morning headlined, “GOP Senators Urge Liberal Democrats To Stand Up for WV Children.”
His statement did not make any direct reference to the foster care bill assigned to Senate Judiciary and Senate Finance.
The statement contended that voting against a bill ending state support for greyhound racing sacrificed $17 million that could have been spent on other priorities.
He also cited lack of Democratic support last year for an omnibus education bill that increased support services for students in schools but also generated controversy for opening the door to charter schools in West Virginia.
“When liberals stand up during election years and tell voters they fight for working families, small businesses and our children, we need to look at their record,” Carmichael said.