CHARLESTON — West Virginia legislators Monday approved recommending passage of four child welfare reform bills for the upcoming session, which begins Wednesday.
The bills still have a way to go before they become law and will likely look different than the drafts approved Monday during the Joint Health Committee’s final interim meeting. The four bills work together and address the adoption process, flesh out the new ombudsman duties, update foster care laws and make changes to Child Protective Services.
At least two of the bills will likely be tweaked significantly by lawmakers as the session progresses, based on questions and concerns raised by members of the committee Monday.
Legislators had several questions regarding the bill relating to CPS.
The bill modernizes the CPS caseworker job classifications — aiming to create more of a career ladder within CPS — and amends the educational/licensing requirements to be a CPS worker.
Under the bill, CPS caseworkers would not be required to have a social worker license. Instead, anyone with a bachelor’s degree could become a caseworker as long as he or she meet certain requirements and undergo training by the department. A social work license would still require a social work bachelor degree or a bachelor degree in a related field, and the new classification system rewards those with social work licenses with higher pay, said committee counsel Charlie Roskovensky.
Several legislators addressed concerns with the licensure changes, with Del. Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, stating she fears it was “dumbing down” caseworkers. But Sam Hickman, executive director of the National Association of Social Workers West Virginia Chapter, said the job requirements for CPS have already been dumbed down.
“This reflects something that is already in statute. The department has the ability to hire people that have any kind of bachelor’s degree,” Hickman said. “That’s not where we wanted to be at this point, but it was something they fought for a few years ago and they won. What we would like to do, and this legislation helps clarify it, is if you do not have a degree in social work or a related degree, you can still work for the department but you are going to be restricted to working in that environment with their training. You aren’t going to be able to take that and get a social work license then work for another agency or private practice.”
Hickman added the department currently supports workers who go back to school to get a master’s degree in social work, and that will still be an option for people and will be a pathway to a license.
The bill also will allow CPS caseworkers to file a grievance if their caseload is over 25. As it is currently worded, Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, said in the overburdened system, the grievance provision could create a line of grievances one after another without really fixing anything.
Legislators also spent a considerable amount of time discussing the provisions of a bill to revamp foster care accountability laws. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were concerned about a line in the law that requires foster or kinship parents to request permission from their caseworker to travel out of state with their foster child 10 days in advance. If the caseworker does not respond to the request within three days, the request is approved.
Cammie Chapman, counsel for the Bureau of Children and Families, said the travel request is already CPS policy and the intent of the language is to pressure caseworkers to respond to the requests.
Chapman said the requests are not granted formally with a letter, but Marissa Sanders, leader of the West Virginia Foster, Adoptive and Kinship Parent Network, said when she was a foster parent and from what she’s been told from current foster parents, travel requests are granted by letter — which can be good because then families have written proof they requested and were granted permission.
“Putting it into code is a good idea, but it needs some tweaking from the way it’s written now,” Sanders said. “...Some workers think this applies even if you leave the state for 5 minutes. I’ve had people get yelled at because they forgot they went over the bridge from Parkersburg to Marietta (Ohio) and went right back. A lot of caseworkers are young because the turnover rate is so high and they won’t give permission without approval of their supervisor, which slows down the process even more.”
Sanders said when she was fostering, she was placed with children a few weeks before she planned to fly to visit family out of state.
She received approval for her travel just days before she was scheduled to leave. The delay made it hard for her family to plan.
“But I could go to Wheeling for vacation and not even notify the department,” she said. “If I want to go to Ashland, Kentucky, for one night, I need a signed letter.”
The justification for the travel requests is so the state, whhich has custody of these children, know where the child is.
In some cases, birth families need to be notified, or court-appointed advisers.
The bill also mandates the creation of a registered foster family database, but committee counsel said more work needs to be done to clarify the language and intent behind it.
The goal is to make it easier to place children in appropriate homes and to target recruitment of foster families.