W.Va. House Judiciary Committee Sends Ombudsman Bill Onward After Discussing Legal, Staffing Issues

Jan 17, 2020

Lawmakers highlighted both a potential conflict of interest and staffing concerns in a bill establishing responsibilities for a newly created and appointed foster care ombudsman. 

The ombudsman position was established by House Bill 2010 last session, to advocate for the rights of foster children and foster parents in disputes with other entities involved in the child welfare and foster care process.

House Bill 4094, which the Judiciary Committee advanced to the House floor Friday morning, elaborates more on the expected work of the ombudsman. It places the position in the West Virginia Office of the Inspector General and allows the West Virginia Attorney General’s office to provide legal counsel when requested.  

Former Child Protection Services worker and certified foster parent Pamela Woodman-Kaehler was appointed to the role in October by Department of Health and Human Resources Cabinet Secretary Bill Crouch.

Woodman-Kaehler told the House Judiciary Committee on Friday her job as ombudsman is to “drive public agency accountability,” by reviewing complaints regarding West Virginia’s child welfare agencies, social service agencies, its managed care organization and even the DHHR. The department oversees the Bureau for Children and Families, which oversees much of the foster care process.

Del. Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, said connecting Woodman-Kaehler’s office to the Attorney General’s for legal counsel might create a potential conflict of interest. 

“The Attorney General is the statutory attorney for the Department of Health and Human Resources,” Steele said. “Part of her [Woodman-Kaehler’s] primary responsibility is to investigate complaints against the DHHR. … So, you have one part of the attorney general’s office fighting against another part of the attorney general’s office, and it is truly a conflict of interest.”

Steele proposed an amendment allowing Woodman-Kaehler to seek outside counsel in such a situation. That amendment failed 6-17. 

“It occurs all the time in several different branches of office,” Del. Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, said. “The attorney general’s office is very familiar with the different ways to protect, and they have the authority … to hire outside counsel if they need to.”

Involving outside legal counsel might add an additional financial burden to Woodman-Kaehler’s office, Fleischauer added, as Woodman-Kaehler tries to determine how much the state should invest into her role to ensure it’s an effective position. 

Press Secretary Curtis Johnson for the attorney general said his office is in the process of reviewing the matter and he’s unable to comment further at this time. 

Ombudsman Still Uncertain About Staffing Needs

In other comments to the committee, Woodman-Kaehler said after reviewing several ombudsman programs for child welfare in other states, she can foresee needing more staff as soon as possible. 

Woodman-Kaehler told lawmakers she envisions her office a “dedicated public servant team,” with her as the lead ombudsman, an associate ombudsman working beneath her, various field agents throughout the state, decent software for case management and clerical staff. 

“I think it’s becoming evident in this legislation that this is far more than any one person, however motivated, could do” Woodman-Kaehler said.

For the time being, Woodman-Kaehler is the only person staffing her office. She told the committee she recently filed an improvement plan requesting $457,000 for a pair of clerical positions and four regional employees. 

“I can tell you I am already receiving complaints in my office, and as we all know I have not yet quite gone public,” Woodman-Kaehler said. 

She predicts this and other changes to West Virginia’s foster care system — including a recent transition to a managed care model and sweeping reforms recommended Thursday by members of the House Health and Human Resources committee  — will bring a “flood of demand” to her office.

“There’s so much we don’t know. It’s difficult to project. I’m doing the best I can,” Woodman-Kaehler said.

Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.