Not only is the head of West Virginia’s Department of Health and Human Resources bracing for a federal lawsuit over the state’s handling of its foster care system, so are private agencies that help identify foster families and place children with them.
Those agencies are contracted by the DHHR to help place children and receive regular funding for their work, said Gwendolyn Davis, director of West Virginia’s Office of Blueprints, one of these nonprofit agencies.
Any lawsuit from the U.S. Department of Justice, she said, would almost certainly affect agencies like hers.
“Sure, the actual outcome would be to-be-determined, but anything that affects the state affects our services in some way,” Davis said. “When you think about this — what it could cost, especially when West Virginia already doesn’t have a lot of resources — the outcome may mean a lot of things for a lot of agencies, and children, here.”
That could make it harder for them to do their jobs and serve children, she said. It could also mean fewer resources to certify foster parents — where there are already shortages — and coordinate care for children.
State Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Crouch said Thursday that he’s bracing for a federal lawsuit, after he told lawmakers the same thing earlier this week.
The Department of Justice believes West Virginia is removing too many children from homes, without ample support for them once they are removed, Crouch said Thursday afternoon.
There are about 6,500 foster children in the state, and only 1,350 foster families, not accounting for relatives who take children in, according to Rachel Kinder, director of Mission West Virginia’s Frameworks program, which connects potential foster parents with all the resources they need to be certified.
The 11 private agencies in the state that certify foster parents are integral to maintaining resources for children placed in the state’s care, Kinder said.
Because of the limited number of foster families, many children may be moved across state lines, miles from home or in group care facilities — all of which were main concerns for the DOJ, according to Crouch.
“We’d like to work with [the DOJ] as partners,” Crouch said Thursday afternoon. “They’ve been talking for months, though, and they’re tired of talking. When you’re a lawyer, I guess a lawsuit is the next move. That’s my expectation at this point — I hope I’m wrong.”
Crouch said the DHHR has been aware of this issue as it’s grown worse over the past few years, and federal and state lawyers have been talking about it for months, but the DHHR is doing as much as it can, given its resources.
Early this year, Crouch said, the DHHR added another 52 Child Protective Services caseworkers in counties where workers were overloaded. Those positions came from restructuring elsewhere in the DHHR.
Each CPS caseworker should handle no more than 15 cases at a time, Crouch said, but in some places, workers were handling more than 25.
“With that many cases, you can’t even see all your kids,” he said.
Overburdened caseworkers can mean children in the system don’t get the care and oversight they need, which could lead to more time in foster care or inefficient care, other concerns mentioned by the DOJ, Crouch said.
Caseworkers also have a high turnover rate, Crouch said. According to DHHR documents, 108 of 472 CPS positions across the state are vacant.
While West Virginians have stepped up in recent years to take kids in and offer support, the number of children in the system is growing much faster than the number of interested foster parents. Crouch said.
Davis said that means many children can be sent across state lines or miles away from their families depending on where there is availability to house them — even if temporarily.
Crouch said he hopes talks with the DOJ continue and, eventually, an agreement between the state and the federal government can be reached.
“We’re going to take care of these children — that’s our priority, and I know it’s [the DOJ’s], too,” Crouch said. “The children come first. It’s all about the children.”