One of the biggest issues remaining in the final hours of this regular legislative session is what to do about the state’s foster care system.
There is general agreement that the system is in crisis.
The number of foster care children has risen to over 7,000, largely because of the opioid epidemic. More than 400 children are institutionalized or in group homes outside the state. An untold number of additional children are being raised by grandparents and other relatives.
There is a shortage of foster care families, and the churn rate is high. Marissa Sanders, Director of the West Virginia Foster, Adoptive and Kinship Parents Network, says four out of five foster care families who stop fostering list frustration with the system as the reason.
House Bill 4092 is a comprehensive bill that addresses some of these issues.
For example, it includes a bill of rights for foster children and foster families. Sanders believes that is critical for empowering foster families to have more say in the care and raising of the children.
Most members of the House and Senate are on board with that and other proposed changes in the foster care system. However, there is a significant hangup over how much foster families should be paid.
The House passed its version of the bill 96 to 1. It added nearly $17 million to the state budget to increase the per diem payments to foster care families and certified kinship providers from a base of $600 to $900 a month per child.
However, the Senate is taking a different approach. Republican leaders have stripped the $17 million from the bill and replaced it with a tiered per diem system where payment rates increase for families that take in children who are more challenging. These are often children who are older or have serious emotional or physical issues.
Jeremiah Samples, the deputy director for the state Department of Health and Human Resources, testified before the Senate Finance Committee Wednesday night that a tiered system would help reduce the number of children who are institutionalized by placing them with families and ultimately saving the state money.
Samples was careful not to turn his back on the additional $17 million offered up by the House, but he also told Senators that the tiered payment system could be implemented within the existing proposed budget.
So, what’s best—a tiered per diem system with no additional money or a 17-million dollar across-the-board increase for all foster and kinship families?
Frankly, this is where the final hours of this session should produce a reasonable compromise. The goal here is the same—improve the lot of children in the state’s jurisdiction and provide more support for the foster families and relatives who are taking on the significant responsibility of raising someone else’s children.