Session highlighted by child welfare reform

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As the 2020 session came to an end Saturday, West Virginia lawmakers could leave the Capitol knowing they made an impact on some of the state’s most vulnerable residents — its children.

Legislators made finishing touches Saturday to House Bill 4092, the session’s comprehensive foster care reform bill. Bipartisan compromise landed the bill in the House on Saturday morning with nearly everything the delegates originally asked for after a week of uncertainty as the Senate process played out.

The bill includes $16.9 million that will be paired with $14 million allocated to the Department of Health and Human Resources for social services to raise the reimbursement rate for all foster families and create a new tiered reimbursement system that provides more funds for families who take on hard-to-place children, such as teenagers.

The House amended the Senate version of the bill Saturday. Along with two technical changes, the House changed the age limit for scattered living sites from 16 to 17 and added a request for the state Supreme Court of Appeals to review their policies for guardians ad litem, the court-appointed attorneys for children in abuse and neglect cases.

The Senate accepted the changes made by the House. The bill now awaits a signature from the governor.

Along with the rate increases, the bill establishes a foster child and foster/kinship parent bill of rights and expands reasonable and prudent parenting standards.

The bill passed the House with one nay vote, Delegate Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock, who works in child welfare. McGeehan argued the bill just “threw money at the problem” without addressing the underlying issues causing the foster care system to be in crisis.

Many delegates rose to disagree with McGeehan, with several saying it wasn’t throwing money but investing money in children.

“If we can save one little child’s life or give them some hope, then it was all worth it,” said Delegate Roy Cooper, R-Summers.

The Legislature also passed other bills relating to child welfare this session.

House Bill 4094 further expands upon the foster care ombudsman position created last year in the first foster care reform bill. The bill further explains the roles and duties of the ombudsman, including how to investigate complaints by foster families and/or foster children and explaining subpoena powers. The bill gives the ombudsman access to confidential documents, such as medical records or a child’s case file.

Jim McKay, state coordinator of Prevent Child Abuse West Virginia, said the ombudsman bill is a great companion bill for HB 4092.

“It helps strengthen accountability in our system to ensure it is meeting the needs of the children,” he said.

At the request of Gov. Jim Justice and the DHHR, lawmakers provided funding for 87 more Child Protective Services workers. That was accompanied by passage of Senate Bill 312, which created a registry system for CPS service workers.

Most CPS positions do not require a social work license, yet provisional licenses were still being granted to these workers even if they didn’t have a social work degree. The registry allows for these workers to still be monitored by a professional board — the Board of Social Work — and requires they complete additional training through the DHHR, but they will not be granted a provisional social work license.

The Legislature also tackled adoption. One bill, House Bill 4129, already signed into law by the governor, eliminated a 45-day wait period before adoption can be finalized. It also permits adoption proceedings to occur in the same county as a child’s abuse and neglect case took place. The other, House Bill 4551, attempts to curb any adoption fraud by clarifying who can continue to receive the adoption subsidy when a child is placed out of the home.

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Taylor Stuck on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.

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