West Virginia’s system for caring for nearly 7,000 children now in state custody increasingly has been under the microscope — partly because the number of foster children has grown markedly in recent years, one of the fallouts from the opioid epidemic.
Another part of it, however, has to do with what various examinations of the system have discovered in recent months. What’s clear is that the state is struggling to provide for these children.
Another aspect of apparent shortcomings in the structure came to light in December, when Marissa Saunders, director of the West Virginia Foster, Adoptive and Kinship Parents Network, presented the findings of a survey of more than 1,000 of those parents.
The results painted yet another troubling picture of how the state’s foster care system falls short, specifically as it relates to some court-related functions and in how ably it includes children and their caregivers in discussing the children’s welfare and steering them toward support systems.
One aspect had to do with guardian ad litems (GAL), who are attorneys appointed by a circuit judge to represent a child and the child’s best interests in abuse and neglect cases. A GAL is an investigator for the court, filing a report with findings and recommendations for the judge at least five days before a disposition hearing. Of those surveyed, mainly certified foster families, the majority said their child’s GAL did not ever interview the child in their care or the caregivers, according to the survey.
A third of families surveyed also said they were never notified of meetings of the multidisciplinary team, which includes people most knowledgeable about the children and family issues in an abuse and neglect case, although foster parents are supposed to be a part of the team. Regarding another factor, 91% of respondents said they believed peer support from fellow foster/adoptive/kinship parents was important but only one-third has access to peer supports.
Based on those findings, it’s evident that communication gaps are far too big, and foster children and their caregivers are not being served well in important ways.
The survey results come on top of other troubling issues. In November, a state audit of the Bureau of Children and Families concluded that Child Protective Services workers, mandated by West Virginia law to investigate child abuse allegations, failed to look into half of the reports of child abuse in 2018 within the time spelled out in state code. Failure to promptly investigate abuse and neglect allegations left children at significant risk, the audit stated.
Problems with high vacancy rates among CPS workers as well as large staff turnover only make the state’s challenge that much tougher.
The state also finds itself fighting a lawsuit filed in October on behalf of 12 children. The lawsuit cites a range of statistics and charges the state and DHHR with failing to provide the necessary services that will protect all of the children in the state’s custody.
The state is taking steps to address various issues. DHHR is working to reduce staff turnover and fill vacancies on the DPS staff. The state is switching to a managed organization to coordinate foster care children’s health care needs. And both DHHR and state Supreme Court officials say they will focus attention on some of the issues raised in the recently released parents survey.
That attention to the various problems is welcome. But more than anything, concrete, urgent action is needed so that the state can do a much better job of protecting the children in the foster system and support the families in charge of caring for this youngsters.