Editorials, Opinion

Not removing kids is not the answer

The Center on Budget and Policy recently released its report on the state of foster care in West Virginia. It draws two main conclusions: Parental rights are terminated more frequently and in less time than the national average, showing that West Virginia is too quick to separate families; and the most common reasons for removal were neglect and substance use, both of which are related to poverty, therefore the state doesn’t do enough to support families.

We agree with the latter, but we disagree with the former.

On the issue of terminating parental rights, the CBP relies on a report by ProPublica, which is based on a joint analysis of foster care data by ProPublica and NBC News. The ProPublica report does say that West Virginia’s average time to termination is 11 months, compared to the national average of 1.6 years (19 months).

However, when you go beyond the initial report to find how ProPublica got those figures, you find a crucial bit of information: From 2015-19 (the period from which the data was drawn), West Virginia terminated only 2% of parents’ custodial rights.

West Virginia prioritizes reunifying children with their birth families over other outcomes. According to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Child Welfare Outcomes, 46% of children in foster care were reunited with their birth families in 2021. So long as birth families make progress on their case plans (e.g., keep the house clean, stay sober, attend rehab, go to parenting classes, keep a job, etc.), they will be the given time and opportunity to have their children returned. However, if parents cannot or will not make any progress within a certain timeframe, they are more likely to lose custody completely.

The state follows the federal guidelines for time children spend in foster care. West Virginia state code says a child should not spend more than 15 months in foster care unless a court finds compelling reasons to give extensions, which courts often do. The clock starts either at the time a court finds credible the allegations of abuse/neglect or 60 days from when the child is first removed. However, if a child is reunified, their case closed and then they are removed again, the clock may restart.  (In 2020-21, 4.5% of children experienced one or more recurrences of “maltreatment” within a year of returning home, according to the CWO data.) This can distort the true amount of time a child spends in foster care or the amount of time it takes to terminate parental rights.

While we disagree that West Virginia terminates parents’ rights too often and too quickly, we do agree that West Virginia doesn’t do enough to help birth families before they reach the point of removal. (Although CWO data disagrees with the claim that neglect accounts for more removals than physical abuse.) This is particularly true of neglect cases in which financial hardship alone is the primary culprit.

On both the national and state levels, too many cuts have been made to food assistance and child welfare programs that allow parents in poverty to keep their children well-fed and properly clothed. Funding for TANF and SNAP cannot keep being slashed. The ceiling for who can qualify for various assistance programs, including Medicaid and other low-income subsidies, should be raised. Someone making just over 150% of the poverty line, which is still often lower than the actual cost of living, would be disqualified from most, if not all, assistance programs.

The Center on Budget and Policy is right that West Virginia can and should do more to help families; but that should not mean lowering the standards for a child’s safety and well-being.