Experts address West Virginia legislators on foster care reforms
CHARLESTON - As West Virginia works to prepare for federal reform on how child welfare is reimbursed, thus reshaping how it will be performed, state legislators are working to reform the system themselves.
The joint committees on Health and the Judiciary listened to a presentation from child welfare stakeholders Tuesday, the final day before the start of the 2019 legislative session. From foster parents to leaders within the Department of Health and Human Resources, the presenters shared their experiences within the child welfare system and offered suggestions for changes that need to be made.
As of the end of December there were 6,743 children in the West Virginia foster care system. Almost half of those children are placed with family, known as kinship care.
To receive support, families must become certified foster homes, but 40 percent of kinship placements are not certified.
In an interview with The Herald-Dispatch in September, Laura Barno, director for the Division of Children and Adult Services at West Virginia DHHR, said families don’t get certified because they don’t want the government to be involved or there are other barriers.
During the presentation Tuesday, Steve Tuck, CEO of Children’s Home Society of West Virginia, said there needs to be discussion about helping those kinship families, many of which are grandparents.
Barriers to becoming certified as a foster parent were also discussed Tuesday. First, there is the 50-hour intensive training program potential foster parents must attend.
Amy Kennedy-Rickman, executive director of Necco West Virginia, and Marissa Sanders, West Virginia Foster, Adoptive & Kinship Parents Network organizer and adoptive foster parent, both said that while the training is long, it is important. The training teaches foster parents on trauma-informed care and what to expect when they receive a child into their home.
It also helps organizations like Necco identify what other help a family might need in the future, Kennedy-Rickman said, and it helps families connect with each other.
The biggest barrier is the home study. Sanders shared stories from foster families about this experience, including a family that was denied because there was a stain on the carpet and another denied because a spot on the wall was missed when painting. She identified other rules, such as the need to have screens in windows even if it’s a first-floor window, as being potentially cost-prohibitive and burdensome on families.
Kennedy-Rickman said it is also burdensome on families and providers to recertify every year. Ohio has a two-year renewal period and Virginia has a three-year, which Kennedy-Rickman said coincides with West Virginia’s background checks. She said Kentucky is looking to relax the certification time line.
“This would provide a little relief to our families,” she said.
Issues regarding the guardian ad litem, which is the attorney that represents the child in court proceedings, also were brought up.
Sanders described from personal experience and from speaking with others situations where the guardian ad litem did not meet with the child or did not have any contact with the foster parents. She also described foster parents being left out of the multidisciplinary team meetings, which are convened in each child welfare court case to determine what is in the best interest of the child. Sanders said there needs to be some oversight in that regard.
Circuit Court Judge Derek Swope said the state Supreme Court reprimands guardians ad litem if it’s found they did not do their jobs, and attorney Jennifer Victor, a guardian ad litem, described what a tough position the job is. She said a pay raise for those court-appointed positions is long overdue.
House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, said Tuesday that foster care reform is a top priority for the House majority this session, focusing on making it easier to become a foster family and helping ease the court system.
Follow reporter Taylor Stuck on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.