CHARLESTON — The West Virginia Legislature is moving forward with a bill to address the state’s child welfare crisis by, among other things, giving foster parents and children new rights and increasing pay for foster parents.
Last week, the House of Delegates Health and Human Resources committee amended and advanced House Bill 4092, sponsored by Del. Jordan Hill, R-Nicholas, chairman of that committee. It now goes to the House Judiciary committee for consideration.
The main components of the bill include giving foster parents a “bill of rights” and updating the current rights for foster children.
Christy Beaver, a foster parent of 13 years who lives in Ansted, is a proponent of the bill, but she also has concerns about some issues left unaddressed, and how the bill, if it becomes law, is implemented.
“We do it because we love kids,” she said. “The Bible tells us that we are charged with the orphans and the widows. We take that very serious, so we do.”
West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources officials, pointing to the addiction crisis as the reason for an increase, have said the state has the highest per capita rate of children in state custody in the nation. According to DHHR, as of December 2019, 7,034 children were in state custody.
Thursday, while working on House Bill 4092, lawmakers in the health committee agreed to increase the minimum pay for foster families, from the current minimum of $600 per month per child to $900 per child – equal to about $30 a day instead of $20 a day. Eligible families would have to be certified through the state Department of Health and Human Resources, so some families taking care of child relatives who didn’t go through the DHHR certification process would not be eligible.
During the committee meeting, Del. Amy Summers, R-Taylor, majority leader, expressed concern foster families would sign up for the pay.
In an interview following, Marissa Sanders, director of the WV Foster, Adoptive & Kinship Parents Network, said that the process for becoming a foster parent is arduous, and that most families have to supplement the cost of caring for the child with their own money. She said it’s a “myth” that foster parents sign up for the money.
“It’s not that much money, and if you’re caring for the children properly, it’s nowhere near – it doesn’t come close to covering all the expenses,” she said.
The legislation also gives foster parents, as well as relatives caring for the children, a bill of rights.
Among other rights, the bill states that foster parents and relatives caring for children in custody of the state have the right to receive training; receive assistance when dealing with loss and separation from a child; receive child care at no cost while attending training or events required by the child placement agency or DHHR; receive their financial reimbursement on or before the 15th of the month; be notified of any issues that could create safety problems before a child is placed in their home; refuse placement; participate in case planning with DHHR; provide input concerning the child’s plan of services; be considered as a permanent parent for a foster child; be provided a fair and timely investigation of complaints; have an advocate present during investigations of complaints; and receive a minimum of 14 days of respite each year.
Beaver noted that foster parents often participate in MDT meetings, where parents, law enforcement, DHHR workers and others are discussing cases involving children in their care, as the only attendees without attorney representation.
“This child is with me 24/7,” she said. “I see what this child goes through after visits. I see what this child, when they first came to me, the trauma that they had experienced.... You don’t get into this lightly. You get into it to help and to change the life of a child and to make that child’s life better and to make the system better. So I think if foster parents think they don’t have the freedom to weigh in what that child needs, then that kind of takes away from their job. They’e just a glorified baby-sitter if they don’t have the weigh-in on what happens with that child.”
She also noted many foster parents don’t receive their checks at a consistent time of the month.
And she said that when foster parents do have a complaint, it’s usually a safety concern, so timely investigation is important.
She also has concerns, however, about how the bill is implemented once it passes.
She noted that while the bill guarantees free childcare in certain circumstances, she can get daycare paid for when she works, but has trouble getting reimbursement when she uses it to go to a doctor’s appointment.
Guaranteeing training for foster parents is important, she said.
But that training also needs to address specific problems foster parents face in West Virginia, such as how to best care for older youth with behavioral issues because they’ve been through trauma, she said.
Beaver hopes the bill results in more foster families willing to accommodate children most in need – such as older children, or the babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome.
“Everybody thinks I want a baby,” she said. “It’s going to be fun... These babies don’t sleep. They don’t eat. They cry all the time. They go through withdrawal. They have a lot of medical issues so while they’re beautiful and precious, they are a lot of work.”
But she also described watching children who enter her home withdrawn “turn into this child that is always laughing and always smiling and a part of things at school and church” once they realize someone cares.
The bill also gives foster children new rights.
While West Virginia’s current foster children bill of rights says that families should be selected based on the child’s needs, the new version clarifies that “ability to remain with siblings, religious preferences, and other factors which may be important to the child and family” should also be considered.
It adds that the child should “receive adequate and healthy food, adequate fitting clothing, and a travel bag” and “receive medical, dental, vision, mental health services, and substance use treatment services, as needed.”
While the current version gives children the ability to contact parents, the new version adds the ability to contact siblings and other adults previously important in their lives.
The current version gives them the ability to open a bank account; the new version also states they can “manage personal income.”
The current version says they can attend religious services; the new version specifies “of their choice.”
Other new rights include: communicate privately with family members; contact the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources about violations of their rights; make private calls and send private mail; work and develop job skills; have private storage space; be free from unreasonable searches of their belongings; speak to a judge and attend court hearings; and be informed of the reason they were placed in foster care.
Both versions prohibit violence and abuse against the child, although the new version is more specific, prohibiting “physical, sexual, psychological, or other abuse, exploitation or corporal punishment” and “unwarranted physical restraint and isolation.”
The bill would also give them the right to “not be subjected to discrimination or harassment.”
Thursday, two amendments that passed included the pay increase for foster families as well as a provision to protect foster parents from retaliation if they want to intervene in court cases involving the children.
Sanders gave the example that a child placement agency or DHHR workers might retaliate against a foster parent if they perceive the parent is trying to prevent the child from re-unification with his or her parents, and perhaps no longer place children with them. But she noted that foster parents have important knowledge about the daily life and current condition of the child.
“We’re out there constantly recruiting for new families,” Sanders said. “We’re not doing a lot to try to retain families, so we end up losing families that get frustrated, and because of things like retaliation. And when something like retaliation happens, or even just a lot of frustration, they tell all their friends and family what happened and then their friends and family who might have been thinking about becoming foster parents say, ‘Oh, uh, never mind.’”
The bill already stated, prior to the pay increase amendment, that DHHR would have to pay child placement agencies a minimum daily rate of at least $75 for services provided to each child in placement.
Previously, child placement agencies received a $55 daily rate for each child, according to Sanders.
Among the local sponsors of the bill are Del. Jeff Pack, R-Raleigh, and Del. Cindy Lavender-Bowe, D-Greenbrier.
“I’m proud of the work we are doing to address the foster care crisis in West Virginia, but we’ve got more work to do,” Lavender-Bowe said. “We must invest in the rehabilitation of DHHR and we must ensure that foster and kinship families have access to attorneys and mental health professionals.”
Separately, the Legislature is also working on House Bill 4094, which specifies the duties of the state foster care ombudsman, who receives and investigates complaints from foster parents and children. The state Legislature created that position as part of a foster care bill last year.
That bill also passed the House health committee last week and was sent to the judiciary committee.
DHHR Deputy Secretary Jeremiah Samples has said DHHR is requesting around $500,000 for the ombudsman’s office this year, which could lead to more staffing.