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‘Our voice is not heard’ — State’s foster care crisis not reflected in legislation 


‘Our voice is not heard’ — State’s foster care crisis not reflected in legislation 

Feb 26, 2024 | 10:54 am ET
By Amelia Ferrell Knisely
‘Our voice is not heard’ — State’s foster care crisis not reflected in legislation 
Michelle Davis, who lives in Charleston, W.Va., adopted a child from the state’s overwhelmed foster care system.(Michelle Davis | Courtesy photo)

In 2017, Michelle Davis opened her Charleston home up as a foster parent — a decision she made after learning the state had the nation’s highest rate of children coming into foster care. And there was a shortage of homes for them. 

“We call it their safe place,” said Davis, 51, who went on to adopt one of the children she fostered. “To know that they’re clean and going to school, and they have friends … and they’re part of our family.”

Seven years later, Davis said the crisis continues, with more than 6,000 kids in foster care and shortage of homes to put them in. Foster parents continue to struggle with communication from the state, and Child Protective Services is still struggling to promptly investigate child abuse and neglect cases. 

And the state health department is facing sanctions for potentially deleting evidence in a foster care lawsuit that alleges poor treatment of children.

The ongoing class-action suit alleged that the state left children to linger in a broken system without plans for permanency. Kids have ended up in dangerous homes and out-of-state institutions, lawyers said.

State lawmakers are advancing a number of bills aimed at problems in the system, including bolstering state accountability for how they care for kids and attempting to trim kids’ time in the child welfare system. 

But many of the bills haven’t made it to the full Senate or House for a vote.

Davis and child advocates feel the crisis hasn’t been a priority this session. 

“Our voice is not heard, and we are the ones that are with the kids 24/7,” Davis said.

‘Our voice is not heard’ — State’s foster care crisis not reflected in legislation 
Del. Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha

Del. Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, acknowledged that tackling foster care problems is complicated. Last year, he called for an independent investigation into how the state responded to a Child Protective Services referral that children were being kept in a shed without food or running water. 

“I feel [foster care] was completely ignored,” he said. “But, it’s an issue that needs to be addressed. Instead, it’s an election year so we get the easy bills for them to pass — the same ole election year, red meat, culture war crap.”

He continued, “We continue to hear reports about, because of the lack of child placements, we’re hearing reports of children being dropped off at hotels, motels, cabins and state parks.”

A spokesperson for the West Virginia Department of Human Services confirmed in an email that seven children were placed “in alternative housing.” 

Shanna Gray is the executive director for West Virginia Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA, a program where individuals advocate in court for abused and neglected children.

“[Lawmakers] are dancing and skirting around the issue… but people don’t know what to do. The legislators seem overall confused about what they can do and what can have impact,” Gray said. “They need policies that actually enact some change.”

Bill focus on gaps in the child welfare system

Lawmakers in both the House and Senate advanced a number of foster care-related bills, including House Bill 4595, which would allow lawmakers on the legislative oversight committee to meet privately with health officials to hear how they responded to child abuse and neglect referrals. 

Lawmakers who supported the bill said they didn’t receive adequate answers from state health department leaders about how they responded to tragic abuse and neglect cases, including ones that involved child deaths. 

The bill has yet to be taken up by the full Senate, and other foster care measures are stalled in the House. 

‘Our voice is not heard’ — State’s foster care crisis not reflected in legislation 
Del. Adam Burkhammer, R-Lewis

Del. Adam Burkhammer, R-Lewis, is a foster parent who introduced a number of bills this year aimed at tackling problems he has seen firsthand in the system or learned about through talking with other foster parents. 

“Every time I hear the stories of children being abused and neglected, my heart breaks and I’m reminded that we’ve got a lot of work to do,” he said.

He is attempting, through House Bill 5062, to increase the number of Guardian ad Litems, who are necessary for child welfare cases moving through court systems.

“They play an important role in representing the children and advocating for their best interests throughout the legal process,” he said. “There is an extreme shortage there which is hindering this service to the kids. We are working on several initiatives for recruitment but simply, they need to be paid more to undertake this essential work.”

Burkhammer, along with Del. Jonathan Pinson, R-Mason, who is also a foster parent, have pushed for the second year to mandate that the Department of Human Services create a communication portal for people involved in a foster child’s case, including foster parents. The bill, House Bill 4975, would cost around $1 million to implement.

Communication problems are pervasive throughout the foster care system, according to a report from the state’s foster care ombudsman.

“Anytime that you talk to foster parents, they feel unheard and disrespected by some of the things that go on in these cases. But many times, it is just a simple breakdown of communication that leads to confusion and frustration in their cases,” Burkhammer said.

Davis detailed a lack of communication about her foster children’s medical records, including what vaccinations a child received before being placed in her home. 

“There’s a disconnect with all the people who are involved in the kid’s case,” she said. “A centralized [communication] area would be helpful.” 

Gray said that while lawmakers are taking some steps to address issues, there aren’t robust bills aimed at improving — and funding — access to community services, like behavioral health providers that could serve kids in care. 

Nonprofit organizations around the state are already providing many critical services to families, she said, but they need more funding. 

“We need widespread series in every county,” she said. CASA isn’t available in every county in the state. “Nonprofit organizations doing community work don’t have automatic line items. They’re not a department with a multi-million dollar budget.”

She’d also like to see an investment in programs that prevent children from coming into the system in the first place. 

Bureau for Social Services Commissioner Jeffrey Pack told lawmakers in December that the state must invest in prevention services to divert more families from coming into the child welfare system in the first place. 

Kelly Allen, director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, said the state must support biological families before they are in crisis.  

“No other state removes as many children to foster care or permanently terminates parental rights more often,” she said.

“Involvement in the child welfare system is strongly associated with family economic insecurity and material hardships — like difficulty paying for food, rent, utilities and medical care. Our lawmakers must protect and strengthen the programs that help families afford those basics, which have such a significant impact on keeping families together.”