League of Women Voters, Opinion

Where are the heroes our kids need?

“We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say ‘it’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’ Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider these people my heroes.” — Fred Rogers

For years, West Virginia has been in a crisis of foster care, kinship placements, out-of-state placements and resource deficits for Child Protective Services.

Our Legislature could choose to help break the cycle of poverty and trauma affecting our children. So far, it has not. Lest we forget, trauma and poverty beget more trauma and poverty.

Candidates for the West Virginia Legislature boldly stated their support for women, children and families in West Virginia — then did little during the 2023 regular legislative session: nothing to protect reproductive rights, some money for CPS without clear direction to address the root causes of neglect and abuse of our children and no secure funding for daycare to enable parents to work outside their homes. Additionally, working families are losing access to health care, child care and food assistance as penalties for making “too much money.” Inflation affecting utility bills, basic food and clothing and transportation has put working families further behind.

The foster care numbers are astounding and disheartening and understandably unmanageable. According to Grandfamilies.org., data from the 2020 census, 33,000 children in the state of West Virginia are being raised in homes by relatives with no parent present, 22,000 of which are grandparents raising their grandchildren. Grandfamies.org also estimates “For every one child being raised by kin in foster care, there are 21 being raised by kin outside of foster care.” As of Oct. 31, the Department of Health and Human Resources has 3,219 active kinship placements. Kinship placements do not necessarily provide the per diem or automatic Medicaid coverage that licensed foster homes receive. Foster homes also receive mandatory training in safety, detailed home inspections and support services. Thus, a child in a kinship placement or otherwise being raised by relatives, may live in a home or with caregivers not vetted and trained specifically to meet foster care regulations.

An additional 6,200 children are in foster care, with 468 children in out-of-state placements. In 2022, 1,683 children were adopted and an additional 2,705 were waiting to be adopted. That translates to 4,388 children whose parents either waived their parental rights or had them terminated by the court.

In 2018, West Virginia passed §49-2-202, the Family Preservation law, which states “Home-based family preservation services are required in all cases where the removal of a child or children is seriously being considered, whether from a natural home or a surrogate home, wherein a child or children have lived for a substantial period of time. However, those services are not required when the child appears in imminent danger of serious bodily or serious emotional injury.” This state policy appears contrary to federal law, which states parental rights should be terminated by the court if a child has been in foster care for 15 of the last 22 months.

It is time for West Virginia to take a long, hard look at these problems affecting our residents and our children. This is our community; it is our problem.

One upstream solution is comprehensive sex education, parenting education and ready access to birth control, combined with repeal of the abortion ban. Undoubtedly, unplanned/unwanted pregnancies contribute to the problem.

For the foster care crisis, other states have made strides, especially regarding out-of-state placements. We should stop trying to reinvent the wheel.

It is time to take action to protect women, children and families in West Virginia. Let your representatives know that we need action, not more restrictions and eligibility reductions. Watch your newspapers and legislative announcements closely and carefully this January. Decide if the path our politicians choose is solution-based or designed to perpetuate these longstanding problems in West Virginia.

The League of Women Voters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to promoting informed and active public participation in government. For more information, go to https://lwvwv.org/