CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The state Senate pledged an additional $16.9 million to support foster families and unanimously passed a broad-ranging foster care bill.
“To see the Senate come together and work some with the House, it’s incredible and to know the impact that will have on real people and real lives and children in our state,” said Marissa Sanders, director of the West Virginia Foster, Adoptive and Kinship Parents Network.
Sanders closely followed House Bill 4092 during its legislative journey.
Lawmakers were divided over key aspects of the foster care bill earlier this week, particularly regarding money.
A House version of the bill established that 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.
The Senate changed all that when it initially considered the bill.
The newly-shaped version of the bill said the state Department of Health and Human Resources must expand a tiered system that provides more financial support for families who take in children considered more challenging.
The initial Senate version of the bill allocated $4.9 million to do that.
Under that, the Department of Health and Human Resources was to create a pilot program to raise state payments to kinship parents — family members who haven’t gone through the certification process to be foster parents.
But the situation changed in the Senate on Friday — Day 59 of the legislative session — with the availability of more money.
Gov. Jim Justice made additional money available, officials said, and that provided more financial flexibility for the foster care bill.
So all 34 senators signed on to an amendment to allocate the originally-conceived $16.9 million.
The bill retains the tiered structure, and senators said it would allow both higher payments for families who take in challenging youth as well as improved financial support for foster parents, kinship families and foster grandparents.
“It is such an enormous accomplishment,” said Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, during a break.
“Today was perhaps one of the biggest, most substantive, critical bills that we’ve passed in this Legislature in a long, long time.”
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.
Senators from both parties praised the legislation that passed on Friday.
“The solution was not a partisan one. It was a bipartisan effort,” said Senator Paul Hardesty, D-Logan. “People have come together and reasoned together for an overall good solution, a good start, to one of West Virginia’s toughest problems.”
Senate Health Chairman Mike Maroney, R-Marshall, agreed.
“The kids in foster care in West Virginia have a tough start in life,” Maroney said. “We owe it to these kids to do the best we can for them.”
The House of Delegates made a priority of the bill and passed it through three committees.
Besides the financial support for families, House Bill 4092 is a broad-ranging bill enumerating certain rights for foster families and foster children while also providing greater detail for the duties of guardians ad litem, who officially speak on behalf of children.
Because the bill was amended in the Senate, it goes back to the House of Delegates one more time to accept or reject the Senate changes.
Delegate Jeffrey Pack, R-Raleigh, one of the delegates who was most involved with the bill tweeted his support for its passage in the Senate.
— Delegate Jeffrey Pack (@DelegatePack) March 6, 2020
Senate Finance Chairman Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, said lawmakers and community members can all be pleased by the bill’s passage.
“I believe it’s a collective piece of work,” Blair said, “and the governor would be excited to sign this piece of legislation into law.”