A committee in the West Virginia Senate has passed a bipartisan bill from the House of Delegates that would reform the foster care system, but not without significant amendments to the bill’s financial items.
House Bill 4092, as amended by the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday night, provides at least $4 million to the Department of Health and Human Resources to implement a tiered system of per diem payments to certified foster parents and kinship caregivers.
That tiered system would “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.”
Children with greater needs like these and older children are the hardest to place, according to Watts, and often they end up in group home or residential facilities.
“What we heard from families [is], families are willing to take older children,” Linda Watts, commissioner of the Bureau for Children and Families, said Tuesday to the Senate Judiciary Committee. “But they need a little bit more money to do that and, in addition, they need support.”
Previously, the bill increased monthly payments to caregivers from $600 to a minimum of $900, for foster care children of all ages and needs. According to financial estimates from the state DHHR, which oversees Watts’ bureau and the foster care system, those increases would cost the state an additional $3.6 million in 2021.
The DHHR says all of the fiscal items in the House version of the bill would cost in total roughly $16.9 million more from the state. DHHR representatives said Tuesday night they’ll have to assemble new fiscal information for the Senate Judiciary Committee’s updates.
Additional changes to the bill by the Senate Judiciary Committee also focused on rights that would be granted to foster care children and their caregivers.
Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, said Tuesday he supported changes to the foster parents bill of rights. He told other senators on the committee he supported removing portions of the original House bill that risked creating a “cause of action” for parents to easily sue the state for money, property or other damages.
Most of the night’s debate was centered around the funding impacts. Sen. Glenn Jeffries, D-Putnam, made a motion to return the original funding to the bill, as approved by the House of Delegates.
The amendment ultimately failed along party lines, 6-10.
“We have money for everything else around here,” Woelfel said, who voted in favor of reinstating the House-requested dollars. “We always find the money when we need it. But there aren’t too many lobbyists out here for these little foster kids.”
During the committee’s debate on the amendment from Jeffries, Sen. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, called Del. Jeffrey Pack, R-Raleigh, to testify to the committee.
Pack is a co-sponsor on the bill and serves as vice chair of the House Health and Human Resources Committee.
Before passing the full House of Delegates nearly unanimously, the bill passed three House committees with favorable recommendations.
Pack told Senators he and other delegates drafted House Bill 4092 over the interim session, after considering various complaints from foster families regarding a lack of services available and financial support.
“We considered that we could best address both services and the per diem rate, in a nutshell,” Pack said. “So, what we did was, through a series of discussions, we decided to increase the funding per diem to the child placing agencies.”
In addition to increasing monthly payments to foster families, the DHHR said House Bill 4092 — as originally written — would’ve cost the state an additional $7.5 million for an increase in daily amounts provided to foster child-placing agencies.
According to Pack, that proposed increase was to help these agencies set up support services for foster families that the DHHR cannot.
He added the $900 amount was only the minimum for what the House wanted families to receive.
“We understand some children require higher imbursement rates because of exceptionalities, or they’re harder to place,” Pack told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Sen. Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, opposed the amendment from Jeffries to reinstate the House’s $16.9 million funding. He said he thought the Senate Finance Committee would be more qualified to consider the financial aspects of the bill.
“So why did the Judiciary find it in its purview … to remove that funding in the first place?” Baldwin asked Weld. “It came to us with specific amounts, and you said it was best for the [Senate] Finance Committee to deal with the numbers, but we took the numbers out and added new numbers. I don’t understand how that fits within the framework of what you are saying.”
“No,” Weld replied. “No one’s saying that these children aren’t going to receive money for these programs. What I did say — and I think it was taken out of context and misconstrued — was that the financial side of this can be dealt with within the Finance Committee.”
“I’m not against giving increases to kinship relatives, or to the foster care providers,” Watts told senators Tuesday night. “I’m not against an increase. I’m not sure the amount that was set [in the original version of the bill] will get us the building of services that we need for the older kids.”
DHHR Deputy Secretary Jeremiah Samples said the agency still could provide payment plans to families if the amended House Bill succeeds in Senate Finance with the new tier system, the $4 million and an additional $14.9 million the DHHR already has requested for social service improvements.
According to Samples, the DHHR has been piloting a tiered system in certain counties. He said if the program were administered statewide, the state would save more money in the long run by placing older children with more behavioral needs with West Virginia families, instead of costly institutions.
“It doesn’t have to be either or,” Woelfel said in the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday night. He suggested the Senate reinstate the House’s funding and propose an amendment on the Senate floor that calls for the tiered system.
Senators rejected two amendments from Sen. Stephen Baldwin to reinstate items from the former House bill for the foster child’s bill of rights.
One amendment would’ve returned a line from the original House bill, allowing foster children the right to be free from unwarranted physical restraint and isolation.
A second amendment would’ve returned more language from the original bill, allowing foster children to keep in touch with previous caregivers and other important adults to a child, withstanding an order from the court prohibiting that.
“It is my sense that … young people who are in this circumstance, they are experiencing a certain level of trauma, and that trauma is only magnified by the chaos of it,” Baldwin said before his proposed amendment failed. “So, when you’re in that situation, you need anchors. You need guideposts, you need people you can turn to who are safe, you need positive influences in your life.”
House Bill 4092 goes to the Senate Finance Committee next.
Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.