“So where are all the kids?”
With an ever-increasing focus on West Virginia’s opioid crisis and its effect on our foster care system, the average person probably understands that there are not enough foster families in our state to house all the children in care here — 7,095 according to the April 2019 Legislative Foster Care Placement Report.
When speaking to prospective foster families, we frequently answer questions about what happens to all the children who cannot live with their own families when there’s no foster family available. Along the way, we dispel a lot of false information:
- Children do not live in offices of West Virginia’s Department of Health and Human Resources, though some — removed in the middle of the night — have slept on office couches until a placement could be found the next day.
- There are no orphanages in the United States, and most children in the foster care system have two living parents.
- Other states have their own foster children to care for, so we cannot simply send our state’s children to foster homes elsewhere just because our own homes are full.
I’d like to share a typical scenario to illustrate where the children go when they first come into care, and where they stay during their time in custody.
Imagine it is 2 a.m. on a Saturday, and the on-call Child Protective Services worker receives a page. There has been an incident. Drugs are involved, and the parents are incapacitated to the point that they cannot safely care for their children, 2- and 5-year-old boys and a 12-year-old girl.
The police have contacted CPS, and the worker needs to respond. If an appropriate relative could be reached, then the CPS worker could engage them in a short-term protection plan and avoid having to take custody. However, in our scenario, no relatives can be reached immediately, so the department will take the necessary steps to assume custody.
Once the worker arrives on the scene, they will often be concurrently trying to reassure the children, speak to the parents or law enforcement and put together a few clothes and belongings for the children. The worker will next need to look for a foster family.
In our state, almost all foster families are certified through private foster care/adoption agencies that contract with the Department of Health and Human Resources. The CPS worker will begin by contacting on-call workers with those agencies to see if they have placement availability. Because this is an emergency removal, the only information known is the children’s genders, ages and the very basics of why they were removed.
Health records, allergies and vaccinations, school or daycare info, behaviors and any special needs are, unfortunately, unknown at this time. The potential foster family will need to make its decision to offer care without this information. Ideally, a family can be found that is close by and can take all three siblings together, but often that doesn’t happen.
There are currently 2,322 youth in foster care placements in West Virginia. There are approximately 1,500 foster homes in the state, and each family has their own limitations on how many children they can care for, as well as what ages and genders are appropriate for their home.
What happens when families can’t be found? Emergency foster homes are a new DHHR initiative to alleviate this problem, with homes being opened across the state as a pilot project. These homes will be available during evening and weekend hours and are limited to 48-hour stays, enough to provide a safe home until a longer-term option may be found.
Beyond foster placements and these temporary homes, another short-term placement is emergency shelter care. We currently have 194 children in this type of care, defined in DHHR foster care policy as “short-term care (less than 60 days) for children just entering foster care or those who are between placements.”
In our hypothetical scenario, an unfortunate but common outcome might be finding a foster family placement for the 2- and 5-year-old but placing the 12-year-old in emergency shelter care. This is because there are typically more families willing to accept placement of younger children or smaller sibling groups.
Once the children are placed with a foster family or in an emergency placement, the worker will continue to look for relatives, especially during the first 30 days of the case. This is required by state and federal law and is considered a best-case scenario so children can maintain family ties and experience less disruption.
In our scenario, the worker is able to reach a grandmother who appears appropriate and willing. The worker can visit the home, assess her ability to care for the children, evaluate her home for safety concerns and ensure that she is free of criminal and Protective Service history. If all checks out, the children may be moved out of foster or shelter placement and placed with the grandmother.
There are currently 3,314 children in relative or kinship placement in West Virginia, making up almost half of the youth in custody.
According to ChildTrends, a nonprofit foster care research center, the average length of stay in West Virginia foster care is approximately 13 months. Once a child is initially placed, they may stay in that original placement or they may move depending on their individual needs and the availability of a placement.
There are currently 620 youth in group or residential care, defined as “facilities licensed to provide psychiatric and/or behavioral health care on an acute or long-term basis.”
There are 96 youth in psychiatric facilities — for treatment of a psychiatric, emotional or behavioral disorders — and another 76 in transitional living, a semi-independent living arrangement designed to teach independent living skills prior to leaving the foster care system. Youth are generally eligible for transitional living once they turn 17 and do not have or do not wish to have an adoptive resource.
Finally, we have 432 youth in out-of-state placements. This happens for two primary reasons: they need a specific type of treatment that does not exist in West Virginia or there is no availability in the treatment facilities in-state. Out-of-state placements must be approved before they can be made, and there are ongoing, active efforts to bring children back in state once it is appropriate for each child.
DHHR will always find a placement for every child who enters custody. However, making the best match for each child depends on having enough foster families. Imagine being a child who, overnight, loses their parents, their home, their pets, their friends and all of their personal belongings. Having enough foster families can be the difference between maintaining what ties they have left: their siblings, their neighborhood, their school, their teachers and access to extended family.
The role of DHHR is to protect and keep children safe. We need more foster families in West Virginia to ensure children can thrive.