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Data shows W.Va. foster care system overloaded


CHARLESTON — A new report conducted by the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy shows West Virginia places the most children in foster care compared to any state in the country, with four times as many kids in the system per capita as the United States as a whole.

Kelly Allen, executive director of the center, said on Wednesday’s MetroNews “Talkline” the issue has a lot to do with poor policy making.

“We withhold many supports until families are in crisis,” she said. “A lot of our policy making has been focused on supports that kids need once they’re in foster care and that’s really important, but we’re never going to stem the flow of kids into the foster care system until we extend the same supports to biological families.”

In 2021, 2.2 percent of all children nationwide who entered foster care were from West Virginia despite the state only having 0.5 percent of the total U.S. population, the data showed.

West Virginia also permanently terminates parental rights more often than any other state, at a speed nearly 40 percent faster than the national average, according to the report. Allen said that has a lot to do with parental substance abuse and neglect.

“A lot of times we rush to terminate parental rights because the time we know it takes to recover. We know recovery can take 1-5 years, but if we’re permanently terminating parental rights in 11 months, we’re almost setting parents up to fail,” she said.

The issue ties in with poverty. Allen said it can often be addressed through social and economic supports rather than drastic family separation measures. The report said families that experience material financial hardship are three times more likely to be reported for neglect and four times more likely to be reported for abuse.

Much of the issue weighs heavy on the state Department of Health and Human Resources, particularly with staffing issues among Child Protective Services workers.

Incoming Department of Human Services Secretary Dr. Cynthia Persily told state lawmakers during interim committee meetings Tuesday CPS vacancy rates are improving.

“Our CPS vacancy rate is down to 16 percent in September. That’s 81 positions that are available statewide. That’s down from a high of 33 percent in January last year,” Persily said.

Recent staffing shortages have put a strain on the department as employees work to get a handle on hundreds of abuse and neglect cases. Kanawha County Circuit Judge Maryclaire Akers said Tuesday there were more than 800 of those cases in her county alone when that number was just above 1,000 in September.

Persily said getting a handle on those cases will encourage more CPS workers to stay.

“We know that a reduced caseload can help with our retention efforts by preventing burnout, court communication, low morale and certainly compassion fatigue,” she said.

Pay raises CPS workers have recently received has helped address the vacancy issue too, Persily said.

“The compensation that you approved last year certainly has made a difference in terms of recruitment, the starting salary as well as the retention efforts,” she said.

State DHHR Bureau of Social Services Commissioner Jeff Pack said “invest and prevention” are the two things that should take place in order to avoid overcrowding the foster care system. He told lawmakers on Monday families need to be supported at the first sign of problems rather than at the back end.

“My suggestion would be that if we appropriately invested upstream so that CPS was not the first call, but the last call — that we keep CPS from being involved by strengthening and supporting families before it’s an emergency,” Pack said.

The number of children in foster care in West Virginia increased by 57 percent between 2012 and 2021, while the state’s overall population declined by 4 percent, according to the center’s report.

There are currently about 6,300 children in the foster care system across West Virginia.