W.Va Senate Restores $16.9 Million To House Bill Reforming Foster Care
West Virginia senators passed a bill from the House of Delegates on Friday, in an attempt to reform various aspects of the state’s overwhelmed foster care system.
House Bill 4092, as voted on by the Senate, sends roughly $16.9 million to the state Department of Health and Human Resources to implement a tiered system of direct payments to foster families and child-placing agencies.
The legislation also formally adds “kinship caregivers” to state code, referring to adults with an established connection to the child they’re fostering. It includes a list of more than 20 rights for foster children and their caregivers, and it increases accountability related to guardians ad litem, or the attorneys who represent foster children in the judicial system.
The bill now heads back to the House of Delegates. Earlier this week, there was concern in the chamber about plans in the Senate to drastically reduce the bill’s funding to $4.9 million.
“It addresses the crisis that we’re currently in, of being woefully short on foster families,” Del. Jeffrey Pack, R-Raleigh, said of the $16.9 million request on Thursday. “The idea behind increasing the imbursement rate was to help recruit more certified foster families in our system.”
Senate Finance Chair Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, told his chamber on Friday that lawmakers received a “revenue adjustment letter” on Thursday for $20 million.
“It gave us the flexibility for what we had in our budget, to be able to do that,” Blair said.
The House version of the bill increased monthly payments to foster families from $600 to $900, per all children, regardless of need and age.
The Senate version of the bill that passed Friday creates a tiered system to “provide higher payments for foster parents providing care to, and child placing agencies providing services to, foster children who have severe emotional, behavioral or intellectual problems or disabilities.”
In committee testimony, the state Department of Health and Human Resources has said the agency would favor a tiered system, because having different tiers would allow them flexibility to better serve older foster children and children with greater needs, who are often harder to place with families and end up in expensive group facilities, out of state or in some instances juvenile detention.
“For some reason, the department has a much easier time placing infants, very young children, than they do placing teenagers,” Judiciary Chair Charles Trump, R-Morgan, said on the Senate floor Friday. “Children who have problems, or special needs, are especially hard to find homes for. So, as a consequence of that, what we’ve got in West Virginia right now is we have a lot of them in institutional environments … and that’s wrong. Any child that could be put in a home and is put in congregate care in some institution, is not being served in the child’s best interest.”
Marissa Sanders, a member of the West Virginia Foster, Adoptive and Kinship Parents Network, said Friday after the Senate’s vote she was pleased with the body’s decision.
Since interims this year, Sanders has connected lawmakers with foster families and their perspectives. In Pack’s testimony to the Senate Judiciary committee on Tuesday, when senators were considering stripping funds, he said lawmakers began working on House Bill 4092 after reviewing data from Sanders.
“It’s just amazing to see people who have felt like they had no voice, and no real involvement in the process, step up and begin to share their truths,” Sanders said of foster families. “The feeling of being heard by legislators is just absolutely incredible. To look at that bill and see that these things are here because foster families said, “this is what we need,” and they heard us, that’s incredible.”
The bill is going back to the House, where 96 delegates passed an earlier version of the legislation in February. Should the House agree with the Senate’s amendments, the bill goes to Gov. Jim Justice for final approval.
Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.