Deputy Secretary for Children and Adult Services Cammie Chapman speaks to the members of the Joint Standing Committee on Health on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2023. (Will Price | West Virginia Legislative Photography)
The number of West Virginia foster kids in residential care is increasing, despite a federal mandate to reduce the number of children in facilities, some who are housed out of state.
There are currently 511 kids in residential care, state data shows. State health department leadership told lawmakers Tuesday that the department developed a new plan to address issues in residential care. Private providers, who will be affected by the changes, said they’re concerned about the proposal and called for a collaborative and transparent process.
There are 71% more children in state custody now than there were a decade ago. Foster care experts have said family settings are best for children in care, but the state has struggled to recruit enough foster families for kids in care, which has, in part, driven the department to turn to in- and out-of-state residential providers.
Additionally, there aren’t enough in-state providers that offer the kinds of specialized care for kids in care.
Cammie Chapman, deputy secretary for children and adult services, told members of the Joint Standing Committee on Health that the state health department is working to divert more kids away from group care and connect them with community-based services.
“We’re making sure we have evidence-based assessment as to whether the child can be served in their community or does that child need the level of care that would be a residential treatment intervention,” she said.
Chapman said the state will also ask its 46 in-state facilities to restructure how they provide treatment, and they’ll ask some to provide a higher level of care so kids don’t have to go out of state for services. The changes would affect residential homes, specialized intensive treatment facilities and emergency shelters that serve foster kids. They’ve modeled the plan after similar efforts in Iowa, which has successfully reduced the number of kids in residential care.
There is also a new proposed rate structure that won’t be site-specific. The goal is to implement the changes by next summer.
Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, noted that all the care providers are private. “We can’t force private businesses to do what we want. We can encourage and you can try through your restructuring of the rates to incentivize,” she said.
Katrina Harmon is the executive director of the West Virginia Child Care Association, which represents professional service organizations in child welfare, including residential treatment facilities.
She said the proposed changes are “very concerning to private providers.”
“Any transition of how West Virginia serves its youth needing a residential level of treatment needs must be executed very methodically and hand-in-hand with the private providers that have years of expertise in serving the high acuity treatment needs of this population,” Harmon said.
She continued, “We must be careful that we do not jeopardize the safety and well-being of youth by prematurely dismantling the current funding methodology, and keep the business structures of our current in-state providers stabilized.”
The state is under a deadline to reduce its children in residential care. A 2014 Department of Justice investigation found the state relied too heavily on it, particularly for children with disabilities. The investigation, which was completed in 2019, required the state to increase access to community- and schools-based support services.
As part of the DOJ agreement, the department rolled out additional in-state mental and behavioral health support for kids, including those not in state care. A report from the state health department indicated an increase in the number of mental health screenings, referrals and connections to services for West Virginia children.
“More and more West Virginians are using the Children’s Crisis and Referral Line, which has in turn helped to decrease the number of children in residential treatment placements,” Chapman said in a press release.
Sparsely attended meeting during hectic special session
Tuesday’s meeting fell during a packed week for lawmakers as Gov. Jim Justice called a special session Sunday afternoon during already-scheduled legislative interim meetings in Charleston. Because of overlapping schedules, most House members of the committee weren’t able to attend the presentation on foster care.
About half a dozen Senate members of the 37-member committee attended the meeting.
“Members of the House, and more importantly the people we represent, deserve to be at the table and afforded the ability to question those testifying the matter,” said. Del. Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha. Pushkin was among Democrat House members who called for a special session to address the state’s foster care issues; foster care was not on the governor’s priority list for the session.
“The subject matter was incredibly important, not the least of which, the state of our overburdened foster care system,” Pushkin added.
House spokesperson Ann Ali said legislative staff members provide handouts and notes from interim committee meetings to all the members every month. “It’s never ideal to have a small fraction of committee members in attendance for any meeting, but members of the House who were unable to hear today’s presentation do have other ways to receive that information, including a video replay, which also is available to the public through the Legislature’s website,” she said.
CPS vacancy rate improving
Lawmakers did receive encouraging news about long-standing issues with child protective workers vacancies and retention. After passing bills that offered a pay raise, retention bonuses and more, the vacancy rate has dropped to 20%, according to state data. The number was higher, usually around 70%, over the last year, and the Eastern Panhandle has experienced significant staffing shortages.
Additionally, since 2015, lawmakers have more than once reduced requirements to become a CPS worker to address the shortage.
“We’re making significant headway,” Bureau for Social Services Commissioner Jeff Pack told lawmakers.
The department also implemented a traumatic response plan for CPS workers, that includes access to emergency mental health services and follow-up care, if necessary.
“People who work in CPS are the victims of seeing unthinkable things, and we’ve done a number of things to try to alleviate that,” Pack said.
The department will continue making efforts to recruit and retain CPS workers, Pack said. He plans to travel around the state to meet with workers to discuss issues affecting the workforce.
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