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Foster care advocates concerned after WVa bill’s defeat

March 15, 2022 GMT
FILE - State Sen. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, speaks with fellow senator Mike Romano, D-Harrison, during the opening day of the state legislative session, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020, in Charleston, W.Va. Baldwin said he was “ashamed” after a foster care bill died on the final day of the 2022 session. (AP Photo/Chris Jackson, File)
FILE - State Sen. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, speaks with fellow senator Mike Romano, D-Harrison, during the opening day of the state legislative session, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020, in Charleston, W.Va. Baldwin said he was “ashamed” after a foster care bill died on the final day of the 2022 session. (AP Photo/Chris Jackson, File)
FILE - State Sen. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, speaks with fellow senator Mike Romano, D-Harrison, during the opening day of the state legislative session, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020, in Charleston, W.Va. Baldwin said he was “ashamed” after a foster care bill died on the final day of the 2022 session. (AP Photo/Chris Jackson, File)
FILE - State Sen. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, speaks with fellow senator Mike Romano, D-Harrison, during the opening day of the state legislative session, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020, in Charleston, W.Va. Baldwin said he was “ashamed” after a foster care bill died on the final day of the 2022 session. (AP Photo/Chris Jackson, File)
FILE - State Sen. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, speaks with fellow senator Mike Romano, D-Harrison, during the opening day of the state legislative session, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020, in Charleston, W.Va. Baldwin said he was “ashamed” after a foster care bill died on the final day of the 2022 session. (AP Photo/Chris Jackson, File)

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Advocates of foster care children in West Virginia fear some of the state’s most vulnerable children will not get the help they need after a bill aimed at improving services unraveled in the Legislature.

Employee pay raises and other key provisions were stripped from the bill before it died Saturday when the House of Delegates didn’t take up Senate changes before the midnight deadline.

Lawmakers did pass a bill that would split into two smaller divisions the massive Department of Health and Human Resources, which accounts for 39% of the state’s spending.

Marissa Sanders, who is an adoptive parent and founder of the West Virginia Foster, Adoptive and Kinship Parents Network, said legislators’ failure to pass the bill “was a real missed opportunity for increasing accountability and transparency” in the DHHR.

The more than 6,500 children who are in the care of the state and the overwhelmed social workers need help now, not when lawmakers decide to act, she said. According to the DHHR, there is a 30% vacancy rate statewide for foster care employees.

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“Our system is struggling. We hear about the staffing challenges and the caseload issues,” Sanders said. “We can’t keep doing things the way we’ve been doing them for another year until we have another session, or another two years while we reorganize the department. We just don’t have that kind of time.”

The Senate’s minority leader, Greenbrier County Democrat Stephen Baldwin, wants a special session to focus specifically on foster care. He had sounded a warning for action on the bill two days before the end of the session because it remained in a committee, which would eventually pick it apart.

Baldwin said in an email to The Associated Press that given what happened to the bill, he doesn’t believe foster care is a priority in the Republican-led legislature.

“What will happen after this bill died is more of the same. And the same situation for our state’s foster children is unacceptable,” said Baldwin, who is a pastor at a Presbyterian church in Greenbrier County. “I’m ashamed that this piece of legislation died. Talk is cheap; the legislature showed they don’t really prioritize children in need.”

In the Senate Finance Committee, 15% pay raises meant to promote the retention of workers in child and adult protective services were removed from the bill along with the implementation of a public data dashboard.

After the pay raises were gutted, DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch told a Senate committee that the department would reduce the number of open positions to provide the much-needed raises to child protective services employees. But how that works remains to be seen.

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When the watered-down bill moved to the Senate, an amendment by Baldwin was passed to require that calls to a child abuse hotline from a medical professional must be investigated. The bill then was sent back to the House of Delegates, where no action was taken.

“A heartbreaking outcome,” Delegate Lisa Zukoff, a Marshall County Democrat, said Monday on Twitter. “We must do better.”

Sanders said the dashboard involves making some foster care data collected by the DHHR available to the public on a website. While it wouldn’t include information that identifies individual children, it could have, for instance, the number of foster families in the state, the reasons why children are placed in foster care, or how far a child is placed from their home, she said.

Having this data available could help both policymakers and nonprofit groups while keeping residents informed, Baldwin and Sanders said.

“As a nonprofit, if I want to do a project in a particular county or region, I have to have data to prove that I need to do that project in order to get funding for it,” Sanders said. “I have pastors calling, saying, ‘We’d love to support all of the foster families in our county. How many are there?’ Don’t know.”