Foster bill battle brewing in WV Senate

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Supporters of the foster care reform bill are still optimistic about the legislation as it faces a partisan battle in the West Virginia Senate on Friday morning.

House Bill 4092 was moved to third reading with right to amend Thursday. As of press time Thursday, there were four amendments pending.

One of the amendments would reinstate language that increased reimbursement payments to foster families, which was removed by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

As passed by the House, the bill increased the reimbursement given to foster families from $600 a month per child to $900 a month per child if they foster through the state, and increased child placement agency reimbursements from the state. The Senate replaced that language with a new code section titled “Priorities for Use of Funds.” The section requires the Department of Health and Human Resources to expand a tiered foster care system that provides “higher payments” for foster parents and child placement agencies who are providing care to children who have severe emotional, behavioral, or intellectual problems or disabilities by July 2021.

It also requires DHHR to develop a pilot program to increase state Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits paid to uncertified kinship parents.

Of all the changes the Senate made to the bill, the reimbursement rate is the largest and arguably the most impactful. It is also causing the most tension in the Senate.

“Senate leadership is holding foster children hostage to get the intermediate court,” said a frustrated Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell.

Delegate Jeff Pack, R-Raleigh, one of the lead sponsors of the bill, said he believes there is a way to implement the tiered system, which he agrees is a good idea, while still increasing the base reimbursement rates.

Marissa Sanders, director of the Foster, Adoptive and Kinship Parent Network, also agreed the tiered system was probably the way to go. She said while the bill of rights is top priority, foster families still need more money. The reimbursement rate for foster families hasn’t been increased since 2003, she said.

“The cost to raise a child has raised significantly since then,” Sanders said. “Child-placing agencies also do a lot of work for the payment they receive, and they are in need of an increase as well. They’ve found funding for many other priorities. The House has found the money; the Senate can as well.”

The House version of the bill came with a $16.9 million fiscal note, though that also included 14 days of respite care for foster parents that was removed by the Senate. The Senate version, as amended by the Finance Committee on Wednesday, allocates $4.9 million to implement the funding priorities.

Jeremiah Samples, deputy secretary for the Department of Health and Human Resources, testified to the Judiciary and Finance committees that the department believes it can do a tiered system and an increase in payments to families who foster directly through the department with the funds from the Senate bill along with $14.9 million requested by the department in its budget request.

Sanders said she would prefer lawmakers expressly state how the funding should be used, because as written, it doesn’t guarantee families will see an increase.

Along with funding changes, the Senate version tweaked the bills of rights for foster children and foster parents. One of the floor amendments attempts to bring back one of the removed rights of foster children: the right to be free from unwarranted physical restraint or confinement. The same amendment failed in the Judiciary Committee, with Bureau for Children and Families Commissioner Linda Watts saying she considers that abuse or neglect, which is also addressed in the bill of rights.

Along with the bill of rights, the Senate version includes foster and kinship parent contractual duties and responsibilities. Parts of the House version were repurposed under this section, though they are vague. Where the House bill expressly addressed issues foster parents are having with getting travel requests approved, the Senate version requires DHHR to address travel provisions in the contract, for example.

“It’s a bit frustrating to see that the foster parent duties are spelled out but the department responsibilities are so vague,” Sanders said, adding she still had some questions about that new section.

Pack said he thinks the new duties section was born out of the idea that it may not be the state’s position to dictate the rights of foster parents, but he believes if the rights aren’t enumerated in code, they cease to be rights.

As the bill stands, Pack says it won’t pass the House. But he is optimistic the two bodies will come to an agreement on how to best support foster parents in the next two days.

Sanders was also optimistic.

“The more I look at it, the more I see it as a major step forward in terms of giving foster parents a voice and some involvement in the system,” she said. “Hopefully it’s the beginnings of system reform that will strengthen our system.”

The Senate will begin its session at 9:30 a.m. Friday, March 6.

Follow reporter Taylor Stuck on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.