Though not native to West Virginia, 17-year-old Geard Mitchell’s story is all too familiar to many in the Mountain State.
As recently profiled in The Washington Post, Geard was 8 years old when his mother died of a drug overdose at their home in Staten Island, New York. With a father unable to care for the boy and his two younger sisters, the three siblings were sent to Madison, West Virginia, to be raised by a family member. In another unfortunate turn, according to The Post, Geard suffered two years of physical abuse, and he and his sisters were removed from their home and placed in foster care. The younger sisters were quickly adopted, but, for Geard, 11 by this time, it was harder to find placement.
A lack of certified foster homes, overloaded caseworkers and other strains on the system found Geard staying for extended periods in institutions housing juveniles who had committed assault or rape. He witnessed violence between staff and inmates, and among the inmates themselves. He was subjected to conditions he never should have had to deal with. Relatives in Ohio who had wanted to take Geard in couldn’t get certified. They blamed the disorganization of the foster care system. Things got so bad, Geard tried to end his life, twice. He finally was placed with his Ohio relatives after they were granted certification late last year. Things are now looking up.
But there are many other cases like Geard’s. According to a lawsuit filed against foster agencies in 10 states, including West Virginia, 71 percent of foster children between the ages of 12 and 17 in the Mountain State are not housed in foster homes, but end up in places they shouldn’t be — like juvenile detention facilities — because there is simply nowhere else for them to go.
It’s now a problem the state is intimately acquainted with. As the opioid crisis has mowed down a generation of parents, either through incarceration or overdose deaths, the state is left with nearly 7,000 foster children in its charge, and only about 1,300 eligible foster homes. Kinship care homes number somewhere around 2,500. It is anticipated the number of foster children will continue to grow in West Virginia.
Through action of the Legislature, a private organization is contracting with the state to provide more resources and try to manage the problem. At the same time, as reported in the Register-Herald by Erin Beck, one legislative committee will recommend during the 2020 session that some foster children or parents be disqualified if they are part of the LGBTQ community — a staggeringly idiotic decision that throws a nonsensical barrier into an already chaotic situation.
Like many other things that have been similarly besieged in West Virginia, the foster care system simply wasn’t ready for the fallout of the opioid epidemic. Of course there aren’t enough homes. Of course caseworkers are overworked, frayed and disorganized. West Virginia wasn’t prepared for a 67 percent increase in its foster child population over the past six years.
But that’s what happened, all the same. That’s the issue the state — not just administrators and politicians, but communities and families — is tasked with solving. Because when kids are in crisis, people step up and help them. It’s up to every West Virginian to assess this problem, and figure out a way they can help. Maybe it’s not becoming certified as foster parents. Maybe it’s volunteering time or resources. West Virginia needs more caseworkers and needs to better pay the ones it has. It needs more foster homes. But those are larger problems it will take time to solve. In the meantime, it’s up to everyone else to do what they can.