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Bill aims to better evaluate troubled state kids

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Groups that work with troubled West Virginia children want lawmakers to support a bill requiring all state agencies to use a standardized evaluation tool that they say could help ensure more effective placements and treatments while also improving inter-agency communication. Supporters say the West Virginia Child and Adolescent Needs and Strengths assessment has already been tailored to meet the needs of the largely rural state and will help ensure the many agencies that deal with kids in crisis are working from the same playbook. Kathy Szafran, chief executive officer of Crittenton Services Inc. in Wheeling, wrote the legislation that grew from meetings of the West Virginia Child Care Association last year. It will help ensure children get the care they most need, she said, whether they're in residential treatment, foster care or a juvenile justice facility. It will also generate data for a statewide database that West Virginia University would maintain to help policymakers, colleges and universities, and others spot trends and then identify what resources are needed in different regions. Troubled children come into state care through many different channels, she said, yet agencies have no uniform method of communicating or evaluating their needs. "And these kids don't fit into the silos we've developed,'' she said, noting many have suffered previously unreported trauma that affected their behavior and put them on a path to the child-welfare system. The CANS tool, developed by the Illinois-based Praed Foundation, is a functional assessment that looks at the child holistically. It evaluates what's happening in the home and many other aspects of their environments, Szafran said, "not just the child's IQ or personality traits.'' Last year, a national study found that children are dying from abuse and neglect at a higher rate in West Virginia than any other state, a problem that judges, social workers and others say is fueled by rampant substance abuse in families. But communities, particularly in the most rural and least populated areas, typically lack a sufficient safety net of foster care, adoptive families, in-home services and community-based prevention and treatment programs for addicted parents and their children. Cases of abuse and neglect clog the criminal court system, their numbers doubling in less than a decade. Troubled kids often skip school, use drugs, become violent and commit crimes, further burdening the justice system.
Sen. Donald Cookman, D-Hampshire, was for years chief judge of the 22nd Judicial Circuit covering Hampshire, Hardy and Pendleton counties, and saw those cases firsthand. Now he's the lead sponsor on the legislation. "That's true in just about every aspect of the court system ... there's very little community support,'' he said Wednesday. Judges often struggle to choose the best placement for a child, relying on the subjective recommendations of guardians, social workers and others. The CANS tool will provide more comprehensive, objective information, he said. "It's not an end-all, obviously,'' Cookman said, "but I think it's a good assessment tool and would give us a lot more information than the parties have actually ever had before. And they're all reading off the same page.''The state Department of Health and Human Resources supports a universal assessment tool, said agency spokeswoman Marsha Dadisman. But she said DHHR has not evaluated the possible costs of the bill, which must first go through the Senate Judiciary and Finance committees.
Szafran says the costs would be minimal because Crittenton already has people ready to train others. The CANS tool is used in several other states, she said, including Illinois and Maryland, and in Allegheny County, Pa., which includes the city of Pittsburgh."We've had it developed for our population, not urban New York City kids but West Virginia kids,'' Szafran said. WVU will store the data that's collected, which could help give policymakers a better idea of what services are needed and where. "Right now, we have patterns. We'll do community focus groups, but maybe 20 people show up for town meetings,'' Szafran said, "so we're not really getting a clear picture of the trends.''The database would also help colleges and universities customize educational programs to meet the state's needs, perhaps offering more master's degree programs in social work, for example. "Historically, we bring in consultants to come into our state and tell us how to do behavioral services. They provide a beautiful report in a beautiful binder, and we all promptly stick it on the shelf,'' Szafran said. "This will give us hard data to see what's really going on with West Virginia kids.''
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