Justice mum on latest foster care concerns as Republicans demand change in ‘broken system’
Some lawmakers say the governor isn’t transparent about what’s going on in the state’s overwhelmed foster care system. ‘These children and families need help now,’ said Adam Burkhammer, a Republican lawmaker and foster parent.
Jim Justice during the West Virginia State Capitol Day Care Trick or Treat Costume Parade on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2023 in Charleston, W.Va. (Office of the Gov. Jim Justice | Courtesy photo)
Lawyers in a sweeping class-action lawsuit, which alleges that West Virginia is failing kids in foster care, say the state health department deleted emails related to the case. The filing follows the department’s recent failure to turn over documents showing if Child Protective Services ever checked on children who were found locked in a shed.
The lack of information coming from the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources has troubled lawmakers, who spent a portion of October’s legislative interim meetings attempting to get updates from DHHR about the latest issues in the over-brunded child welfare system.
Gov. Jim Justice has been silent on the issue, drawing criticism from some Republicans lawmakers who want swift change within the state health department on behalf of kids.
Del. Amy Summers, R-Taylor, said there’s a lack of transparency in Justice’s administration, including DHHR’s oversight of foster care. She noted that DHHR employees fear retaliation if they bring issues to leadership.
“There has to be a cultural change in [DHHR] and the executive branch as a whole, where accountability and transparency has to be at the forefront instead of them being bogged down in secrecy.” Summers said.
The state’s foster care system is overstretched, and the rate of children entering foster care in West Virginia is substantially higher than any other state in the country. DHHR has grappled with CPS staffing issues, a shortage of foster families and a lack of behavioral health services for children in need. There’s also a shortage of lawyers who can take on child neglect and abuse cases in parts of the state.
At times, the governor has responded to the foster care issues with raises for CPS workers, $2.1 million to address child abuse and neglect, and more. But some lawmakers said Justice’s silence on the latest troubles in the foster care system, which have received national attention, were indicative of his administration’s transparency failures about problems. Multiple lawmakers interviewed for this story said Justice must seek rapid changes in how DHHR is running foster care.
“It’s a complete failure at the executive [level], and you can’t produce legislation that fixes it,” said Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam. “It’s a basic function of the government to protect its safety-net population,” he said.
The governor’s office did not respond to questions for this story.
Justice hasn’t brought up child welfare issues, including the incident with the children locked in a shed in Sissonville, in this month’s online-only media briefings. He is pursuing a seat in the U.S. Senate.
In his 2019 State of the State address, Justice said, “Of course, everyone knows my commitment and how I feel about kids. Foster care, we’re really upside down, and we’ve got to figure out the foster care crisis, and I’m going to challenge all of you all to bring me — bring me solutions.”
Marissa Sanders, who advocates for foster care reform at the Legislature, said lawmakers’ recent attempts to reform child welfare haven’t yielded enough results.
“The governor needs to increase accountability for DHHR,” she said.
Missing documents highlight DHHR transparency concerns
DHHR is in charge of more than 6,000 foster kids, and leaders have said the state’s drug epidemic fueled a foster care crisis. The number of children in the state’s foster care system increased 57% from 2012 to 2021, according to a recent report from the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy.
In an email, DHHR Senior Communications Specialist Whitney Wetzel said, “Transparency is of utmost importance to each agency, as well as Gov. Jim Justice,” as the agency is transiting into three separate agencies. The split was mandated by lawmakers.
“DHHR values the opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue and will continue collaborating with the legislature and federal partners to devise systems of transparency while safeguarding the rights of children and complying with state and federal statutory requirements regarding confidential information,” Wetzel said.
DHHR and Justice are facing an on-going class-action lawsuit brought by legal nonprofit A Better Childhood and local attorneys on behalf of former foster children. The suit, filed in 2019, said the state overly relied on dangerous out-of-state institutions to house foster kids and left them to languish in the system without any plan for permanency.
Transparency issues for DHHR surfacted again on Oct. 26, when lawyers for the foster children sought sanctions in the suit, saying DHHR destroyed emails from seven former top agency officials, including former Secretary Bill Crouch.
The revelation followed years of plaintiff’s struggle for key documents.
“That is the opposite of transparency, when the agency itself does not know what is going on, and whether the children in its care are safe,” said Marcia Lowry, executive director of A Better Childhood. “I think the system continues to barely operate, and I think it’s a real tragedy for the children of the state.”
DHHR responded Oct. 27 that the agency produced or committed to sharing hundreds of documents, including case files, for the litigation.
Del. Summers noted transparency issues in other state agencies, including its oversight of jails and prisons.
Attorneys in a separate lawsuit against the state — this one over inhumane conditions in the state’s correctional facilities — said earlier this month that the state failed to preserve certain evidence, including emails of former officials.
Brian Abraham, the governor’s chief of staff, said Oct. 26 during a press briefing that the administration was unaware of a state technology policy that pre-dated Justice to delete emails of former employees. “There is no basis whatsoever for any allegation that emails were intentionally deleted from any agency,” he said.
The update in the foster care lawsuit followed lawmakers’ and journalists’ attempts to find out how DHHR responded to the case in Sissonville, where neighbors said they called CPS numerous times over multiple months before police found the children locked in a shed.
West Virginia Watch requested travel documents from DHHR that could show if CPS visited the Sissonville home; DHHR has not shared any documents in response to the request.
Sen. Mike Stuart, R-Kanawha, called for an independent investigation into DHHR’s handling of the case.
“Historically, everything related to this incident is troubling,” Stuart said. “It’s important for us to understand how these matters are responded to. I think it would be better for this agency and for the public … to scrutinize the information.”
He hasn’t received a response from DHHR or the governor about his desire for an investigation.
Stuart said he didn’t believe the governor was at fault for his handling of foster care, believing he “inherited a mess.”
But Tarr, who endorsed Justice’s rival in the U.S. Senate race, said the governor’s lack of transparency, which impacts the agencies, and his failure to address issues have further harmed vulnerable populations.
“He’s about to be in his eighth year up there. The people who have needed [his leadership] the most have been harmed or neglected — harmed so much that they ended up in death cases, rape cases and harm cases,” Tarr said.
Summers added, “We’re seeing some issues that it looks like the government is protecting itself rather than improving the services it provides … The governor and the executive branch have to be leaders in changing that.”
But bills aimed at the crisis haven’t always made it to the governor’s desk.
Earlier this year, legislation that would have created an online foster care communication portal barely got any traction. The portal, championed as a way to increase transparency, would have allowed social workers, foster parents and relevant persons access information about a child’s case.
The bill was sponsored by a pair of Republican House members, Jonathan Pinson and Adam Burkhammer, who are also foster parents. They crafted the legislation following their own experiences with child welfare, including a lack of communications about their foster children’s cases.
“When we look at meaningful change, the foster care portal bill that failed last session is a game changer. It isn’t just a feel good bill, I believe it is something that actually moves the needle,” said Burkhammer, R-Lewis.
As DHHR split underway, lawmakers say foster care reform must be prioritized
The ongoing move to split DHHR, which was pushed by lawmakers as part of child welfare reform, must wrap up by the start of 2024. Justice appointed secretaries of the three new departments of health, human services and health facilities.
“I am optimistic that the DHHR split will help but how long will that take? These children and families need help now. I am hopeful that the governor and the legislator can come together for some real meaningful change, sooner than later,” Burkhammer said.
Other lawmakers interviewed shared similar feelings about the urgency of addressing foster care issues.
“We cannot allow this timeline of six months from now … to stand in the way of an urgent sense to fix a system that’s broken,” Stuart said. “Whether that comes in the form of a special session … or a special authorization from the governor.”
Stuart and Summers said that they’ll file legislation aimed at improving child welfare during the regular 60-day session that begins in January.
“My greatest concern is that we’re warehousing children in a broken system,” Stuart said.
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