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Foster care

Lora Jones (left), a foster parent, and Marissa Sanders, director of the West Virginia Foster, Adoptive and Kinship Network, stand to be recognized during Senate debate on the major foster care reform bill that passed the body Friday.

Preston County grandmother Lora Jones is raising seven teenage boys on $462 a month, which barely covers two weeks of groceries.

She’s an uncertified kinship caregiver, although she’s been trying to get certified for several months, awaiting final approval since November. Becoming certified would increase the monthly reimbursement she gets from the West Virginia to care for her grandchildren, and thanks to the passage of House Bill 4092, even more relief might be on the way.

“Doors are going to open,” Jones said.

The West Virginia Senate passed HB 4092 on Friday. Although it reached the floor with only $4.9 million in funds to implement new foster parent funding strategies, thanks to a new revenue projection from the governor, the senators unanimously amended the bill to include $16.9 million found in the House’s original budget.

Thanks to the addition of a tiered reimbursement system the bill instructs the Department of Health and Human Resources to create, Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said the floor for reimbursements will also be able to be raised.

The lowest tier will represent a $6 increase, to $26 a day, which Blair said will make the highest tier a higher payment than the House version. Child-placement agencies will also see increased payments, with the lowest tier being $65.

The bill also requires the DHHR to report back to the Legislature on the increased spending.

The goal of the tiered system is to provide higher reimbursements for families who take on harder-to-place children, such as those with behavioral issues or older teens. The state is working with the U.S. Department of Justice to deinstitutionalize the foster youth, bring them back to West Virginia, if the institution is out of state, and get kids into homes.

It also requires the DHHR to establish a pilot program for increasing state Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits for noncertified kinship families.

Money isn’t the most important thing, said foster and adoptive mom Crystal Kendall, of Calhoun County, but it is a big thing.

Like Jones, Kendall is raising seven teenage boys. She buys five gallons of milk a week, to give just a glimpse into her grocery budget. Along with basic needs, her boys need specialized care, which comes at a price. They, like all teenagers, also want name-brand clothing and items, but unlike typical teens, her foster children value their stuff because they haven’t always had it.

“They’ve spent years never having anything, so now they have the opportunity to have things and they want them,” Kendall said. “Things give them security. It’s like a security blanket. My youngest was in facilities for four years, and when he had a family, the one he had treated him sub-human. So he was never allowed to have things — bare minimum is allowed in their rooms at facilities. So things make him happy.”

Jones and Kendall each quit their jobs to care for their children. Jones said having more help from the state could help her save money, such as for college.

Senators also amended the bill Friday to require the DHHR to pay foster families the same week of the month.

The measure also includes a bill of rights for foster children and a bill of rights for foster and kinship parents. Senators approved an amendment to add the right to be free of unwarranted physical restraint and isolation to the right to be free of abuse and neglect.

Kendall was most excited about the foster child bill of rights, which she said she hopes is expanded in the future. A former Child Protective Services worker, Kendall said children are being punished for responding to their trauma and placed in institutions, where they are further traumatized.

“One thing we try to build is trust,” she said. “They know that, no matter what else, there are two people in this world who will love them unconditionally, regardless of what their behavior is. That’s the kind of foster parents we need to find for teenagers.”

The bill also expands “reasonable and prudent parenting standards,” a national standard permitting foster parents to make the same common-sense decisions for their foster children as they would their own children. This includes the ability to use close family or friends as babysitters, which Jones said will help her. She quit her job because she couldn’t afford child care, and lack of child care almost prohibited her and her husband from attending the day-long training for certification.

Marissa Sanders, director of the West Virginia Foster, Adoptive and Kinship Network, said the bill ensures that caregivers have a voice in the process. She also said it puts the state in the position to work with all stakeholders to improve child welfare in West Virginia.

The bill, as passed by the Senate, also includes:

  • Guardians ad litem, the court-appointed representation for children in abuse and neglect cases, cannot be paid unless they meet the certification and educational requirements of the Supreme Court. This is a change from the House version, which required that the guardian ad litem report be signed off on by the foster parent to prove the attorney actually met with the child. Senators were concerned that the House language superseded the authority of the court.
  • Codifies CPS policy that requires that the agency first look to relatives or “fictive” kin (a person close to the child who is not a blood relative) if a child is removed from their home.
  • Requires that the DHHR establish policies for transitional living services for foster youth between the ages of 16 and 26.
  • Raises the payment to child-placing agencies for completed adoptions to $1,000 and requires the DHHR to analyze every two years whether payments for foster families hinder or facilitate placement.

Senators on both sides of the aisle said the bill was a highlight of the session.

“Were the changes we made perfect? Probably not. But are foster kids better off today than they were in prior years? I say they are,” said Sen. Mike Maroney, R-Marshall, chairman of the Health and Human Resources Committee.

The House has the opportunity to reject any and all changes made by the Senate, but that is not anticipated. The House will take up the bill Saturday, the final day of the session. The House will begin at 10 a.m.

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