CPS System Severely Understaffed In West Virginia
The Child Protective Services (CPS) system in West Virginia is struggling with a severe lack of staff, Commissioner Jeff Pack told the Joint Committee on Children and Families of the West Virginia Legislature earlier this week.
Pack is the commissioner of the Bureau of Social Services at West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources. He is also a former member of the legislature. Pack took over the bureau at the beginning of August. When he began his testimony, he told the committee members he wasn’t going to sugar coat the problem.
Overall 27 percent of jobs at CPS are unfilled. The positions are there, but no one wants them. Some individual counties are much higher. Calhoun, Jackson, Mason, McDowell, Kanawha, Hampshire, Hardy and Pendleton counties have between 40 to 50 percent vacancy rate.
Additionally, 15 percent of the jobs in the Centralized Intake department are unfilled. That’s the staff that receives the abuse and neglect calls first and then determines whether to send the calls on to CPS workers in the counties.
“Candidly, that’s untenable” Pack said. “I don’t know how we continue to operate at that particular rate. If you’re a CPS worker and you’re supposed to have 12 cases, well, now you’ve got 24.”
Pack said the state has approximately 400 CPS workers currently working in the state. He noted that over the last decade, the number of children in state custody has doubled from approximately 3,500 to 7,000.
Pack acknowledged that he gets complaints about the system, but said most of those employees are doing a difficult job.
“They do a job that I couldn't do and I don't know that I'd want to do,” he said. “It's not at all a pleasant job. And most of these folks do a fabulous job.”
Following Pack’s testimony, the committee brought on Sarah Peters, a dental hygienist at Greenbrier Valley Pediatric Dentistry in Lewisburg. She told the committee about a situation where the system failed.
She explained that she noticed a large bruise on a patient. She took a photo of the bruise and called the CPS hotline. After delivering some basic information, she said the person on the other end of the line abruptly cut off the call. That was August 10, 2020.
Peters said she got a letter printed the same day as the call telling her the case was closed and that it did not meet a legal definition of abused or neglected child. There was no investigation.
On Dec. 8 of that year, the mother who had custody of the child murdered each of her five children and step-children, committed suicide and burned down the house with the bodies inside.
Michael Spradlin, a retired West Virginia State trooper and investigator, looked into the case. From his investigation, he determined there had been a history of abuse in the home for months leading up to, and after, Peters’ call.
“Almost four months to the day (of the call), they're murdered,” he said.
Visibly upset during his testimony, Spradlin said he had grandchildren the same age as the children who were murdered. He said there must be changes in the way we look at cases like this.
“We’ve got to know what probable cause is,” he said. “If it had been someone showing up at the police station with the bruise that would have been probable cause to proceed. We just want answers. That's all we want. We want an expert explanation, whatever that explanation is, we can live with it. And we will improve the system.”
Lt. Col. David Nelson of the West Virginia State Police testified that he had worked with CPS and centralized intake to rectify some of the problems with the system. And, he said, he had seen changes to make him believe things were better.
But, he said, when he polled his senior staff about CPS and asked if there were still problems, he said he said some of the captains in the field said yes.
“I really honestly want to work with all involved to make sure what Mr. Spradlin said doesn't happen again,” Nelson said. “That's our main goal.”
Rebecca Carson, the director of Centralized Intake was the final speaker to address the committee. She explained that her employees take referrals 24-hours-a-day, year round. Every person answering calls is a licensed social worker who has had a 16-week training course in child welfare and DHHR policies and protocols.
She described a set of peer review protocols in place to make sure problems like those described by Peters and Spradlin don’t happen.
“Those kinds of checks and balances are not 100 percent foolproof, but they are in place so that we don't make a catastrophic mistake — or even a small one,” she said. “We don't want to leave any kid or vulnerable adult in an unsafe situation.”
As of October 2021, the department records every phone call that comes into Centralized Intake.
She noted, in closing, that Centralized Intake recently did a study of its cases with a federal group. The study looked at referrals that were accepted and screened out, and then looked at the next 120 days to see if those referrals were substantiated or if a case was opened.
She said only 0.7 percent of cases that were screened out were returned to the system within 121 days and resulted in an open case or a CPS finding. The group conducting the study indicated that was consistent with the other states they’ve studied.
Time ran out before the members of the committee could ask any questions of the speakers. Sen. Patricia Rucker, (R-Jefferson) the chairwoman of the committee, indicated that all of the speakers would be asked to come back to a follow-up meeting.