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Foster Care Bill Nearing Passage After Senators Continue Tweaking Funding, Foster Childs’ Rights

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Will Price
/
West Virginia Legislative Photography
Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, chairs the Senate Finance Committee.

A bill for foster care reform in the West Virginia Legislature was amended further Wednesday night, before it was sent to the full Senate for consideration. 

The Senate Finance Committee voted 10-7 along party lines to pass an amended House Bill 4092, providing at least $4.9 million to the state Department of Health and Human Resources for foster care. 

That replaces a line in the Senate Judiciary Committee’s version of the bill, which senators passed along to the Senate Finance Tuesday night, allocating at least $4 million to the DHHR. 

The money in the bill is meant to help the DHHR implement a tiered system of direct payments to certified foster parents and kinship caregivers. In that tiered system, higher payments would go to families caring for foster children with severe emotional, behavioral or intellectual needs, and older children who the DHHR says are harder to place than younger children. 

Before it reached the Senate, House Bill 4092 didn’t address how payments should differ according to the needs and age of a child. Instead, it simply increased the minimum level of direct payments to foster families from $600 a month to $900 a month, per child. The legislation also provided child-placing agencies with a minimum $75 daily per child, to help the agencies provide more services to foster families.

The DHHR estimated the financial implications of the House version would have cost the state $16.9 million total. As both chambers of the Legislature finalize a budget for 2021, the House still includes that $16.9 line item in its budget request. The Senate does not. 

Both chambers' budgets include another $14.9 million improvement package the DHHR requested earlier this year for social services. According to DHHR Deputy Secretary Jeremiah Samples, the department could implement a tiered payment system, as described in the Senate Finance version of the bill, using this money.

“A tiered model does allow us to build greater capacity than a flat increase,” Samples told senators Wednesday evening.  

The DHHR currently is piloting a tiered system in a few West Virginia counties, where child placement agencies and families are paid according to three tiers. The highest tier is reserved for children with the most medical or behavioral needs. 

If the DHHR were able to implement the tiered program statewide, Samples said, more families might house older children and kids with greater needs, who the state otherwise sends to expensive out-of-state institutions and group homes. Samples said of the roughly 7,000 children in foster care now, just under 500 have had to leave West Virginia. 

“One of the biggest money-losers is … having to send our children out of state, pay[ing] a high price tag,” Sen. Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, said in committee Wednesday. He suggested that the state would be able to use the money saved to implement the pay raises the House of Delegates called for with the monthly payment increases. 

“We can do the same thing with less money,” Takubo said.

Democrats who ultimately voted against passing the Senate Finance version of the bill Wednesday said they wanted to reinstate the monthly payment increases, described in the original House bill. 

Sen. William Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio, referred to testimony the committee heard earlier during its Wednesday meeting from Julia Kessler with the West Virginia Children's Home Society.

“Our foster families do the hardest job in the system that we have,” Kessler said Wednesday night. “They take care of kids with the most difficult problems. We ask them to put their own personal lives aside … they really have the most stressful job of taking care of kids and learning how to deal with the behaviors and the trauma that they come into the home with.”

“We have trouble finding families who want to get involved in the foster care system,” Ihlenfeld said. “I don’t think the flexibility we’ve given to the DHHR in the past has worked. I think it’s time that we need to legislate a little bit. … I think sometimes we have to enforce our will upon agencies to make sure that problems get fixed.”

An amendment from Ihlenfeld to bring back the $900 monthly minimum to foster families failed along party lines.

The Senate Finance bill also maintains many of the changes the Senate Judiciary Committee made on Tuesday to a list of rights for foster parents and children. 

The original House bill included 27 rights for children in the foster care system. 

The Senate Finance bill downsized that to 21 rights, most notably excluding rights to receive confidential correspondence from biological parents and other family, to have social contacts outside the foster care system, to have storage space for private use, and to be free from unreasonable searches of personal belongings. 

Senators agreed Wednesday to reinstate a right allowing foster children to maintain contact with former caregivers and other important adults, which had been removed from the House bill by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. 

There were 26 rights for foster parents and kinship caregivers in the original House Bill. Now there are 16. Senators on the Judiciary Committee said Tuesday night that was to mitigate any “cause of actions” those rights created for foster parents to sue the state for damages. 

Regarding other legislative efforts dealing with foster care issues, the Senate agreed unanimously to pass House Bill 4415 for runaway and missing foster care children on Wednesday. House Bill 4094, elaborating on the responsibilities of a foster care ombudsman created last year, is slated to pass the Senate on Thursday. 

Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member. 


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