Lawmakers examine broadening powers of foster care ombudsman

Senators are advancing a bill that would expand the powers of West Virginia’s foster care ombudsman.

House Bill 3061 was advanced by the Senate Health Committee on Tuesday. The bill already passed the House of Delegates, 100-0.

The ombudsman position was created in 2019 to support the needs of the many West Virginia families taking in children. The ombudsman is Pamela M. Woodman-Kaehler.

The current bill permits the ombudsman to examine issues within the child welfare system from intake to when the child ages out. 

The ombudsman’s authority is expanded to also cover juvenile victims of allegations of abuse or neglect, a child sustaining a critical incident or children in the juvenile justice system. Some of those situations would allow for investigation prior to the child officially entering the foster care system.

The bill adds language to protect the ombudsman from being compelled to testify or produce evidence in a proceeding on investigations. And  the bill prohibits other state agencies or officials from preventing the release of reports by the ombudsman.

Patricia Rucker

“This does not change any of the core things we wanted the ombudsman to do?” asked Senator Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson.

No, said the staff counsel for the Judiciary Committee. The ombudsman’s essential duties are the same, but would expand to additional areas under the bill.

“Would it be fair to say the expansion allows the ombudsman to do what we have asked her to do more effectively?” asked Rucker.

Yes, responded the committee counsel. The bill allows the ombudsman to more fully investigate the child welfare system, allowing a more systemic oversight — not just working on a case-by-case basis.

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