Berkeley County Circuit Judge Steven Redding told lawmakers on Monday that his county has a backlog of 400 abuse and neglect referrals to be investigated by child protective services. (Will Price | West Virginia Legislative Photography)
Standing in the state Senate Chamber, Berkeley County Circuit Judge Steven Redding told lawmakers that his county has a backlog of 400 abuse and neglect referrals to be investigated by child protective services. The state’s foster care crisis was evident in the Eastern Panhandle.
The lack of CPS workers and delays in investigating reports of child abuse and neglect left infants and children in danger, he said. Recent cases in his area have resulted in “catastrophic consequences” for children because of delays in investigations and proceedings, according to the judge.
“We continue to observe deficiencies that simply cannot continue,” Redding said Monday to members of the Joint Standing Committee on the Judiciary during legislative interims at the state Capitol.
Officials with the West Virginia Department of Health of Human Resources did not respond to a question from West Virginia Watch that sought a statewide backlog number for abuse and neglect referrals. The information was requested after Kanawha County residents said they called CPS months before police this month found kids who were forced to live in a shed without running water.
Redding said there were other child welfare issues in the Eastern Panhandle, too, like a lack of attorneys willing to take on abuse and neglect cases and overworked CPS workers.
“The significant issues we are experiencing involve the [DHHR’s] inability to complete critical tasks in a timely fashion,” he said.
The issues presented to lawmakers were the latest indicator of the state’s overwhelmed foster care system, which is managed by the West Virginia Department of Health of Human Resources. The agency is facing a sweeping class-action lawsuit about its alleged poor treatment of foster children, as the number of kids in the system has swelled in the wake of the drug epidemic. DHHR recently increased its CPS workforce, but Redding’s presentation revealed that pervasive problems continue, including DHHR’s failure to promptly respond to child abuse complaints.
Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan, requested that the committee hold a legislative meeting focused on child welfare and DHHR’s oversight of the system. Trump, who is running for election for the state Supreme Court, has been one the current Legislature’s most vocal advocates for foster care reform.
“Even though we passed bills the last two or three years in a row … we thought it would be a good idea to have further conversation on the subject,” he said.
Attorneys needed to take on child welfare cases
Over the last few years, lawmakers have attempted to improve the state’s foster care system with bills that bumped up payments for foster families, raised salaries for CPS workers and split up the behemoth health department to improve outcomes.
State DHHR Commissioner of the Bureau for Social Services Jeff Pack told lawmakers that the CPS salary bump has helped fill vacancies — state data showed 84% of CPS positions were filled.
“When he started, the average salary was a little under $34,000,” Pack said. “At a minimum, a social worker with no experience is [now] around $43,000.”
Redding said his circuit sees more than 200 new abuse and neglect cases per year, and CPS workers in his area are tasked with 125 cases when they should only have about 30 cases each.
“We’re in a situation where we’ve been so understaffed that things are falling through the cracks. Things that need to happen aren’t happening. I know that there’s no malintent on the part of anybody at [DHHR].”
When asked how to improve the clogged referral system, Redding suggested that lawmakers consider raising the pay for attorneys who take on child welfare cases.
If more lawyers took on child welfare cases, it would put those cases in front of additional judges, he explained.
“We’d be able to catch some of the things that are falling through the cracks,” Redding said.
He also asked lawmakers to consider improving West Virginia’s in-state treatment options for children with behavioral issues, which sometimes leads DHHR to place children out of state in residential facilities.
There are around 300 kids in out-of-state facilities or psychiatric care, according to state data. Children routinely end up sitting in DHHR offices or hotel rooms waiting for a place to go, according to Redding.
DHHR leaders are trying to decrease their use of out-of-state facilities for foster kids. Following a 2014 Department of Justice investigation, the agency is required under a federal agreement to reduce the reliance on facilities and focus on expanding community-based mental health services.
Pack, a former lawmaker, stressed that the state must invest in prevention services to divert more families from coming into the child welfare system in the first place.
“If I could wave my magic wand and do anything, that would be it,” he said.
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