First ombudsman for West Virginia’s pressured foster care system has resigned

The ombudsman for West Virginia’s overloaded foster care system has resigned, according to the state Department of Health.

Pamela Woodman-Kaehler

Pamela Woodman-Kaehler’s resignation will take effect June 6. Elizabeth Hardy will serve as the acting office director for the foster care ombudsman in her place.

The resignation drew praise for Woodman-Kaehler’s embrace of work at the center of heartbreaking situations and sensitive circumstances — and her departure also raised concerns about whether the ombudsman has had full autonomy to perform that work without undue interference.

A dashboard for West Virginia’s child welfare system shows that more than 6,000 children are in state custody.

The ombudsman position was created in 2019 to support the needs of the many West Virginia families taking in children. Shortly after being named to the job that year, Woodman-Kaehler told lawmakers she would aim high. “I really feel a call of duty for excellence in this role,” she told lawmakers that year. 

Nearly five years later, she is moving on.

“It has been an incredible honor and pleasure to serve the citizens of West Virginia as the state’s first foster care ombudsman. I am choosing to pursue a new opportunity, but the program is exceptionally well positioned to serve our foster care system,” Woodman-Kaehler said in a statement released by the Department of Health.

“I extend grateful thanks to department leaders and other stakeholders who have supported the important work of the foster care ombudsman.”

Ann Urling

The Department of Health’s statement about Woodman-Kaehler’s resignation included praise about her work.

“We very much appreciate Pamela’s work over the years and her passion for serving the children of this state. We wish her well in all of her future endeavors,” said Ann Urling, interim inspector general for the Departments of Health, Human Services, and Health Facilities. Urling also retains a position as senior adviser to Gov. Jim Justice.

West Virginia families owe a great deal of gratitude to Woodman-Kaehler for her efforts in building and leading the Office of Foster Care Ombudsman since its creation 5 years ago, said Jim McKay, state coordinator for Prevent Child Abuse West Virginia.

Jim McKay

“She created the office from scratch and made sure that complaints were handled promptly with impartiality and fairness. The review processes that she developed and implemented have credibility and independence, which is critical when dealing with matters involving families, child protective services, foster care, and the judicial system,” McKay said.

“She has synthesized data effectively to improve the child welfare system in West Virginia. Ultimately, at a time when many people are pointing fingers and offering criticism, in my experience, Pam was always interested in solutions. She will be missed in her role as ombudsman, but thankfully the office she created will continue to do important, meaningful work.”

Kelli Caseman

One of the best things to come out of foster care reform over the last several years was the creation of the foster care ombudsman’s office, said Kelli Caseman, executive director of Think Kids WV.

“Pam was the first person appointed to the position. Since then, she didn’t just help foster families navigate through their problems within the system. She also helped articulate those problems to legislators, who, in turn, would use that information to draft better policy. She’s been noticeably absent from giving those much-needed reports to legislators that articulated problems within the child welfare system over the past few years,” Caseman said.

Caseman also raised concerns.

“The timeliness of her resignation shouldn’t be easily dismissed. If there has been pressure from leadership at CPS or the Department of Human Services to silence her or to deny her access to the investigative side of the child welfare system, I hope the legislature will revisit legislation that will expand the scope of the office and, importantly, separate it from the Department of Human Services so no undue influence can be applied by the system.”

Reports presented online from the foster care ombudsman’s office end at March 31, 2023, more than a year ago.

The state’s human services agency is being sued over the state’s handling of children in foster care. The foster care lawsuit was filed in 2019 — the same year the ombudsman position was created — on behalf of thousands of children by A Better Childhood, a national child advocacy organization, Disability Rights West Virginia and Shaffer and Shaffer, a West Virginia law firm.

The lawsuit alleged rampant issues with institutionalization for children, moves outside of West Virginia, inadequacies with available community-based mental health services and overextended caseworkers.

The resignation of Pamela Woodman-Kaehler is a sad chapter in DHHR’s and DoHS’ failed history to protect vulnerable children,” said Mike Folio, legal director for Disability Rights West Virginia.

Michael Folio

“Sworn testimony exists that shows former DHHR Sec. Bill Crouch and current DoHS Deputy Secretary Cammie Chapman have meddled in the Foster Care Ombudsman’s affairs, directed her to conceal information from the Legislature, and withheld information from her that would have enabled her to conduct investigations to protect the state’s vulnerable children.  Pam is a champion for children and her resignation is a sad chapter in the state’s failure to safeguard children.”

Folio was making reference to a recently-released transcript of a deposition of Jeremiah Samples, former deputy director of the Department of Health and Human Resources and now senior adviser for the West Virginia Legislature.

Jeremiah Samples

In the deposition, Samples described concerns he had shared with the ombudsman.

“There have been a multitude,” he said. “Conflict of interest issues between the department and the ombudsman. Concerns about specific areas of child welfare policy, like out-of-state placement of children, performance of CPS in the field, responsiveness by the agency to provider issues and issues that have been brought
forth by the court as concerns.”

Samples expanded on the conflict-of-interest concern by saying, “initially there were discussions about pressure that the ombudsman was experiencing from the department in talking to the legislature about child welfare issues, reviewing reports and wanting certain information withheld, and just generally being able to gain access to information from the department.”

He then described conflicts with then-Secretary Bill Crouch and Cammie Chapman, formerly associate general counsel and now deputy secretary of children and adult services.

“It was stated to me that Secretary Crouch at one point had met with the ombudsman and applied pressure about discussions that she may or may not want to have with the legislature. And it had been indicated that my name had been brought up, to be very careful about conversations that she had with me, specifically in my work at the legislature.

“There were concerns presented about discussions with Ms. Chapman not wanting information released from the ombudsman.”

Samples elaborated on his knowledge of the meeting between the ombudsman and former Secretary Crouch, who retired in 2022.

“She said that she was called in to Secretary Crouch’s office. And I don’t recall specifically how she worded it. But the tone of the conversation was that it was a threat, to be very careful about conversations that she had with the legislature and documents that she would release.”

Chapman has remained, and Samples suggested the pressure continued.

Samples was asked in his deposition, “In your role as a legislative advisor, have you heard from the — have you had conversations with the ombudsman where she relayed that Ms. Chapman was still preventing the access to certain information?”

Yes, Samples replied. “Although, specifics were not provided. It was more in lines of a general statement that she was still continuing to have problems.”

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