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WV foster care ombudsman resigns; new court docs allege state edited her reports on troubled system

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WV foster care ombudsman resigns; new court docs allege state edited her reports on troubled system

May 29, 2024 | 11:05 am ET
By Amelia Ferrell Knisely
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WV foster care ombudsman resigns; new court docs allege state edited her reports on troubled system
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Pamela Woodman-Kaehler, West Virginia's first foster care ombudsman, speaks to the Legislature's Joint Committee on Health on Nov. 18, 2019. She has resigned from the position, effective June 6, 2024. (Perry Bennett | West Virginia Legislative Photography)

West Virginia’s first foster care ombudsman, tasked with overseeing the state’s troubled foster care system, has resigned. 

Pamela Woodman-Kaehler submitted a letter of resignation, which will take effect on June 6, according to an email from a state Department of Health spokesperson. 

“It has been an incredible honor and pleasure to serve the citizens of West Virginia as the State’s first Foster Care Ombudsman,” said Woodman-Kaehler in a statement. “I am choosing to pursue a new opportunity, but the program is exceptionally well positioned to serve our foster care system.”

Woodman-Kaehler is a former foster parent and child protective services worker.

Elizabeth Hardy will serve as the acting office director foster care ombudsman in her place. The role is housed within the Office of Inspector General.

Lawmakers created the foster care ombudsman role in 2019 in an effort to bolster accountability in the overwhelmed foster care system. The position was also supposed to advocate for the rights of children and families. 

“We very much appreciate Pamela’s work over the years and her passion for serving the children of this state. We wish her well in all of her future endeavors,” said Ann Urling, interim inspector general for the Department of Health, Department of Human Services and Department of Health Facilities. 

West Virginia has the nation’s highest rate of children coming into foster care; the state has struggled to have enough safe homes and CPS workers for children. 

In 2019, a child advocacy nonprofit and West Virginia attorneys alleged the mistreatment of thousands of foster children in a sweeping class-action lawsuit filed against the state foster care leaders and Gov. Jim Justice. 

As part of that lawsuit, former deputy secretary of the Department of Health and Human Resources Jeremiah Samples said in sworn testimony that he worried there were “conflict of interest issues” between the foster care ombudsman and the department. 

The testimony was made public last week.

While lawmakers have tried to broaden the foster care ombudsman’s authority, Samples said Woodman-Kaehler was instructed not to share certain information about problems in the foster care system. 

“ … Initially there were discussions about pressure that the ombudsman was experiencing from the department in talking to the legislature about child welfare issues, reviewing reports and wanting certain information withheld, and just generally being able to gain access to information from the department,” said Samples, who now works as the senior adviser to the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Government and Finance.

Samples said that former DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch instructed that the agency would not “agree with or publicly or politically own the problems outlined by the ombudsman.”

In her first year report, Woodman-Kaehler detailed how fear of retaliation and communication problems were pervasive in the foster care system and extended to families caring for foster children.

Samples, who was fired from DHHR in 2022, disagreed with Crouch’s position.

Additionally, Samples detailed how CPS workers continued to fail to properly investigate child abuse and neglect referalls made by police and teachers. “Referrals were being screened out inappropriately,” he said. 

The Department of Human Services, which now oversees foster care, has faced intense scrutiny for its response to the death of 14-year-old Kyneddi Miller, who was found emaciated in April in her Boone County home. Her mother and two grandparents have been charged with felony child neglect causing death. 

State troopers maintained that they made a referral to CPS about the girl in 2023; a DoHS leader said that the referral cannot be found in their system.