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Linda Watts

Linda Watts, commissoner of the Bureau for Children and Families, presents to the Joint Committee on Children and Families Tuesday.

A split into two more niche bureaus is among changes being made to the West Virginia Bureau for Children and Families within the Department of Health and Human Resources to improve the child welfare system in the state.

The Bureau for Children and Families split will begin in July, said Cammie Chapman, counsel for the department, on Tuesday during the meeting of the Legislative Oversight Commission on Health and Human Resources Accountability. Linda Watts, commissioner of the Bureau for Children and Families, also announced the split during the meeting of the Joint Committee on Children and Families.

The new bureaus will be the Bureau for Social Services and the Bureau for Family Assistance and Supports. Chapman said the department hopes the split will streamline systems and allow social services workers on cases to not get distracted by other issues, like providing support for foster families.

The department also continues on other efforts to improve the foster care system, Watts said, including introducing therapeutic foster care for those with behavioral issues and continuing with the Kinship Navigator program, which is supported by federal grants.

The department is also revamping the kinship family certification process. The change comes from remarks from foster families in a 2019 survey completed by the department in partnership with Marshall University and the West Virginia Foster, Adoptive and Kinship Parents Network.

Kinship families, including a couple that testified to the Children and Families committee Tuesday, said the training for certification was not tailored for relatives. The new certification process will only take 90 days and will also include a $500 stipend to help offset the costs.

Workforce issues within Child Protective Services, however, remain. There is a 29% vacancy rate statewide, and 90% of the districts have vacancies. Region 2, which includes Cabell and Kanawha counties, has 21 vacancies and the southern region has 29.

Chapman said part of the high vacancy rate is due to the fact the department has added 95 new positions since 2019, but they are also concerned about increasing turnover rates. Chapman said the pandemic did impact turnover negatively, as an already hard job got harder to do as “essential workers” without any of the love other “essential workers” got — but even without the pandemic, the department is concerned rates are increasing.

Watts said they also aren’t receiving applications at the rate they have in the past, but she’s hopeful that will change as the state eases out of the pandemic.

The department hopes the added position of Senior CPS worker and additional training will help maintain the workforce by properly supporting them.

A study of the CPS workforce, including the caseloads and time it takes to effectively complete tasks, will also be completed.

The Health and Human Resources Accountability Committee also heard from foster care ombudsman Pamela Woodman-Kaehler, who presented her first report. The report found fear is pervasive throughout the system, and communication at all levels is lacking.

Chapman said the department appreciates the ombudsman’s work, and said they look forward to future reports to see any progress.

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