Sabreena Weaver at the Faithful Fostering Foster Closet in Grafton, West Virginia, on July 7, 2023. Weaver, a foster parent, and several friends started the nonprofit after many realized foster children only arrive with the clothes on their backs. (Kristian Thacker | West Virginia Watch)
West Virginia’s financial support for foster parents often falls short, leaving them to unexpectedly pay out of pocket for necessities like car seats, clothes, beds — even medical items.
The state has the nation’s highest rate of kids coming into foster care, spurred by generational poverty and the drug epidemic. Data shows other family members often raise children who can’t be with their parents, many times grandparents on a fixed income.
The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, which oversees foster care, offers foster parents and kinship caregivers vouchers to use at Gabe’s, a discount chain store that has only six locations in the state. But the store doesn’t always have often-needed items for kids like car seats and bottles on the shelves, according to some foster parents who shop there.
Despite the state’s reimbursement options, those families are regularly on the hook for paying for children in their care, sometimes purchasing for multiple kids at once with little notice.
In an email, a department spokesperson said families are also reimbursed for purchases at other stores. Foster parents told West Virginia Watch the process is burdensome and unreliable. Foster parents and their advocates are hoping DHHR, which is undergoing a major internal restructuring, will address the voucher system in order to recruit and maintain foster families.
Earlier this year, lawmakers mandated DHHR changes after mounting criticism for the agency’s treatment of both children in foster care and vulnerable adults. The department will split into three agencies in an effort to streamline communications and improve outcomes in a state with some of the worst health outcomes in the country.
The limits of the voucher program
In the last year, Toni Lawton and her husband have welcomed eight children, ages 0 to 9, into their Charleston home through foster care.
She said she wasn’t prepared for the unexpected upfront costs when a child arrived at her home, sometimes with little warning and late at night. Almost all of the children placed in her care immediately needed basics like clothes, underwear, toothbrushes, car seats or bottles.
“I have learned that being a foster parent, you have to be of a certain privilege to do it,” Lawton, 36, said. “We drained our savings when we took the three kids last summer. It caught me off guard, honestly.”
A 9-year-old girl arrived one evening earlier this year. “She came with a backpack, two outfits that were kind of raggedy and socks on her feet — nothing else. No toothbrush, no underwear, no hairbrush,” Lawton said.
She was happy to rush to Target that night to purchase with her own money what the girl needed before school the next morning, but she said she knows many families who can’t afford to purchase what a child immediately requires.
Delegate Kayla Young, D-Kanawha, questioned DHHR officials about the Gabe’s voucher system earlier this year at legislative interim meetings.
“It’s just a bad system,” Young said. “It needs to be addressed, because it’s a failure of one of our departments of government.”
Walmart, with a steady selection of baby and children’s items including car seats, previously accepted vouchers from DHHR but stopped in early 2021. There are 38 Walmarts in West Virginia.
“DHHR was told by Walmart that the reimbursement process is administratively burdensome,” spokesperson Emily Hopta said in an email.
Walmart did not respond to a media inquiry for this story.
JCPenney also accepts vouchers but has occasionally paused the chain’s participation in the program, according to Hopta. At times, Gabe’s has been the only offered voucher for foster parents. The state does not have a contract with Gabe’s, she said.
State reimbursement for foster care expenditures at Gabe’s was $1.2 million in the 2022 fiscal year.
The vouchers are $375 per child and can only be used at one time of purchase.
Shanna Gray is the state director for West Virginia CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates). Volunteers and staff with the nonprofit, which is in 30 counties, advocate for children in foster care. Gray is also a foster parent.
She said a common issue with the state offering Gabe’s vouchers is the lack of car seats at the store.
Gabe’s did not respond to a media inquiry for this story.
“We have families that need those immediately,” she said, adding that they end up paying out of pocket. Car seats have expiration dates, too, meaning they have limited ability to be shared.
“DHHR is willing to partner with any retailer that is willing to participate in the voucher process,” Hopta said.
Sudden costs a hurdle as state seeks more foster families
Unexpected expenses associated with fostering have been a common issue among foster families, according to Marissa Sanders, director of the West Virginia Foster, Adoptive and Kinship Parents Network. Sanders, who is an adoptive parent, represents and advocates for more than 1,400 foster families in the state.
“I don’t think anyone would mind buying the things that a kid needs in their home, but the challenge is it could be a huge amount of payout with no notice,” she said, explaining that it can be especially challenging when a social worker brings a kid in the middle of the night, and the child immediately needs thousands of dollars’ worth of items. Then, she said, there are the day-to-day expenses after that.
“All foster families are on the hook for diapers,” she said.
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The state has struggled to recruit foster families fast enough to keep up with demand. The department was unable to provide a number for how many foster homes are needed, Hopta said, due to the nature of foster care.
After further questions, she explained DHHR is working with child placement agencies “to determine how to best calculate the number of foster homes needed based upon the complex factors of each foster homes’ requirements and the needs of foster children.”
There are more than 6,400 kids in the state’s foster care system.
In an effort to recruit more families, the state Legislature raised the reimbursement rates in 2020. DHHR rates for children in foster homes differ based on the ages and needs of the children, ranging from $790 to $942 per child in traditional foster homes or certified kinship homes, Hopta said. Emergency food benefits are available for some kids in care.
In an impoverished state, some foster families’ reliance on this money came into sharp view when DHHR announced earlier this year without warning that paying out to some foster families would be delayed due to an internal technology change. Families, including those who had autopay set up for bills or were on fixed incomes, detailed to media outlets how the late payments meant they couldn’t purchase groceries or pay for other necessities.
The state health department also provides health insurance for children in foster care. Still, out-of-pocket costs can also pop up for foster families who provide medical equipment that isn’t covered by insurance.
Children in foster care are more likely to have special health care needs, and specific mental health and developmental conditions, according to research in JAMA Pediatrics.
Foster families in West Virginia regularly end up paying for specialty items that are prescribed or recommended by therapists, according to Gray. Her organization has helped purchase highly specialized beds and high chairs, balance beams and orthopedic equipment.
“[Foster families] come to us because they don’t have that fear of retaliation from the [health] department,” she said.
Foster families create solutions
When Sabreena Weaver became a foster parent, she saw the amount of things a child can need the moment they arrive at their new home.
“My son came to us at 8 months old, and he had a 0 to 3 [month] sleeper on, and all of his toenails were bent down where he had been in it for so long. He came with one sleeper,” said Weaver, who lives in Grafton. “You get the phone call, and you’re expected to take care of these kids, and they come with nothing.”
Other foster parents around her were experiencing the same thing, so a few years ago, Weaver and some friends started a nonprofit, Faithful Fostering Foster Closet, that provides resources to foster families. They serve 115 kids a year, Weaver said.
“The biggest thing we provide is twin-size beds and mattresses and car seats,” she said.
Organizations like Weaver’s, which are often referred to as “foster closets,” have popped up all around the state in an attempt to ease the financial burden for families and support children.
“There is a great need,” Weaver said. “These kids have lost so much. They’ve lost their homes … by just providing these things sometimes it means the siblings can stay together.”
Weaver explained that by providing higher-priced items, like beds, for free, it can help a family say, “yes,” to taking on multiple kids with little notice.
Young said the voucher issue isn’t something that should be addressed with legislation. Rather, she noted that now, as DHHR undergoes an overhaul, would be a good time for the department to look at the problem.
“Hopefully,” Young said, “they talk to foster parents and fix the holes in the system.”
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