CHARLESTON — A bill making changes to West Virginia’s foster care system that passed the House of Delegates last week was before a state Senate committee Thursday.
The Senate Health and Human Resources Committee recommended House Bill 4344, relating to foster care, for passage Thursday afternoon. The bill heads next to the Senate Finance Committee.
HB 4344 requires the state Department of Health and Human Resources to develop a program with child placement agencies to ensure that kinship families are assigned to the agencies that can provide support services to the family. The department would need to create a new foster family database to track these placements and match new placements.
According to a 2019 report by DHHR on its kinship care program, 49% of foster child places were in kinship homes. Kinship programs place foster children either with blood relatives or responsible adults that had previous connections to the foster child. As of February, there were 6,574 children in the state’s foster care system, with 2,060 in a certified kinship home and 1,440 in a non-certified kinship home.
The bill requires the department to contract with a third party to study how the agency handles centralized intake for abuse and neglect cases and to review the standards for accepting referrals.
A committee substitute to HB 4344 offered by the Senate Health Committee would expand the kinds of data the study would collect in order to provide DHHR with more specific data.
It allows DHHR to hire outside counsel for abuse and neglect cases instead of using county prosecuting attorneys. A new section included in the bill by the Senate Health Committee would require any reporting by a medical professional of abuse or neglect of children to the state hotline be immediately investigated.
“I want to thank Senator (Mike) Maroney for his support of that and I want to thank Senator (Patricia) Rucker for her support of that issue of the last couple of months,” Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, said in a press conference Thursday morning expressing support for the bill.
Baldwin said the provision was due to an incident in Greenbrier County where a medical professional in 2020 had reported what they believed to be abuse of a child they were treating, but the abuse and neglect hotline never sent the report to law enforcement. Four months later, the child in question and four other siblings were murdered by their mother, who set the house on fire and shot herself.
“A medical professional made a phone call to the child abuse hotline and it was screened out, and local CPS officials and law enforcement therefore never did get that phone call from the medical professional,” Baldwin said. “Right now, the bill has a study of the child abuse hotline.”
HB 4344 also increases the pay for direct service workers by 15% and requires the Division of Personnel to increase the salary ranges for those job classifications by 20%. According to a fiscal note, a 15% raise would cost more than $9 million for the next fiscal year. According to DHHR, the department has 1,265 direct service employees with 273 vacancies.
The fiscal note also estimated a $2 million cost for fiscal year 2023 for the intake study, contracting out for legal counsel, and a $1 million cost for the data dashboard and matching database, with a $1 million cost every year upon full implementation.
“We could be using data in a better way to help match kids with foster families when they do come into foster care, so that can help reduce the number of kids in congregate care and help to make sure kids are really placed with a family that is prepared to meet their needs,” said Marissa Sanders, executive director of the West Virginia Foster, Adoptive, and Kinship Parents Network. “I think really getting a comprehensive look at the system and the trends overtime will help tremendously.”
The House passed HB 4344 in a near-unanimous 99-1 vote last week. Del. Lisa Zukoff, D-Marshall, said the bill was the result of a full year of work and a bipartisan effort of House and Senate Republicans and Democrats.
“This is the most important bill that is going to come out of the session in my opinion,” Zukoff said. “I’m so thankful this is a bipartisan effort and that this is a bicameral effort. Both the House and the Senate recognize the importance. Nothing is more important in West Virginia than our children.”
Zukoff also said that lawmakers are working with the Governor’s Office to allocate an additional $2 million to fund the state’s guardian ad litem system — attorneys assigned to represent the interests of children. Zukoff said the state has lost more than 200 guardians ad litem over the last two years, leaving just around 250. The added funding could help recruit attorneys to stay in the program.