During November legislative interims, a persistent message was once again confirmed by data: We can and must do more for the children in foster and kinship care in our state. We have known about the problems for years. On its face, the continued failure to support our kids is bad enough. However, when we think about our state’s future, this is a problem we must address immediately and head-on.
The statistics show we are failing about 6,900 of the most vulnerable children through staff shortages and a bureaucracy that fails to provide for these children in crisis. Fifty percent of the child abuse cases in our state go unchecked. West Virginia has the highest number of grandparents raising their grandchildren in the United States. Even when a family steps up to care for children, the bureaucracy often fails to help them provide for basic needs for months on end.
Those who have taken on the awesome privilege and responsibility of making sure these children have the resources to overcome past traumas, access health care resources and the ability to focus on what kids should — learning and having fun — are woefully understaffed. The latest numbers show Child Protective Services is understaffed by 239 positions statewide. This is at a time when West Virginia’s foster system continues to grow in numbers while national numbers have trended slightly down.
For example, Marshall County, the area of the state I call home, is down two CPS workers and a supervisor. The staff shortage has caused our local community — including county school administrators, law enforcement and community leaders — to come together to obtain the help needed from state DHHR officials for child abuse issues. This is a systematic, unacceptable and unforgivable failure. One major problem has been attributed to a lack of foster parents and kinship care providers.
The future success of our children and state is dependent on foster and kinship families. Staff shortages cause a failure to quickly process paperwork, fingerprints and complete home checks to name a few. The bureaucracy prevents the proper care of endangered children. The frustration is often so great that those caregivers already in the broken system give up and do not foster again. We need to simplify the system in order to keep and bring in new caregivers for children in need.
Until we act collaboratively, our problems will continue. We need incentives and a concerted effort to hire more staff immediately, to start to heal the wounds and hearts of this state. It is rare to meet someone with West Virginia roots that does not have a connection to the opioid crisis.
As state lawmakers and the governor prepare for the upcoming session, we must step up to the plate with meaningful, effective legislation to lessen unnecessary paperwork that delays providing needed funding to foster and kinship care families; we need to allocate resources to improve DHHR outcomes; and incentives such as student loan forgiveness for our current and future social workers.
The 6,900 children in foster care deserve the chance to live meaningful lives. They are worthy of our help.