A1 A1
Huntington receives perfect score in report on LGBTQ inclusion

HUNTINGTON — For the first time since the ratings began, Huntington has received a perfect score in a national report that grades cities based on inclusiveness of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer individuals.

The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ civil rights organization, released its annual Municipal Equality Index on Tuesday. The index scores 506 cities of varying sizes based on a number of factors, such as local nondiscrimination laws, providing transgender-inclusive health benefits for city employees and offering LGBTQ-inclusive city services.

Huntington was given a score of 100 on a 100-point scale, which is nearly double the score given to the city five years ago. That score is also 39 points higher than the average score for cities in West Virginia, meaning Huntington leads the state in terms of LGBTQ equality. Charles Town, Charleston, Lewisburg, Morgantown, Parkersburg and Wheeling were also included in the report.

“Receiving a perfect score in the 2019 Municipal Equality Index validates what our community already knows — that Huntington is a city of honor, respect and compassion,” said Mayor Steve Williams. “And while we have made strides to become more inclusive in Huntington, our work is not done.”

Huntington’s perfect score was earned after the city revived its Human Relations Commission earlier this year. For the past two years, the city had received a score of 95 out of 100 because that commission was not active.

Without the Huntington Human Relations Commission in place, the city had no mechanism to enforce its nondiscrimination ordinance, which includes gender and sexual orientation among its protected classes. The 11-member commission has the authority to investigate alleged violations of the ordinance and take action against those found to be in violation of it.

The city’s previous Human Relations Commission was disbanded in 2011 amid a lack of funding. It was revived after City Council members set aside money in the city’s 2019-20 fiscal year budget, which was one of Williams’ goals for several years.

In October, Williams hired Marshall P. Moss, a longtime employee of the West Virginia Human Rights Commission, to serve as the commission’s executive director.

Since first being placed on the index in 2014, Huntington has nearly doubled its score because of City Council’s passage of an anti-discrimination ordinance, the assignment of an LGBT liaison to city executives and the Huntington Police Department, providing services to those living with HIV/AIDS, leadership’s pro-equality policy efforts and a nondiscrimination policy for city contractors, according to HRC. The organization is based in Washington, D.C.

In 2016, the city launched an Open to All campaign asking businesses and organizations to sign a campaign pledge and place a sticker in their windows that identify them as a place that does not discriminate against anyone. The campaign now includes more than 200 businesses, religious organizations, professional services and others that have taken the pledge.

In addition to evaluating Huntington, the HRC gave Charles Town a score of 45; Charleston a score of 91; Lewisburg a score of 43; Morgantown a score of 75; Parkersburg a score of 13; and Wheeling a score of 57.

In West Virginia, only 12 municipalities have local laws banning discrimination against LGBTQ people in the areas of employment, housing and public accommodations. That means that 200,000 people, or only 11% of the state’s population, live somewhere with these protections, said Andrew Schneider, executive director of Fairness West Virginia, the state’s largest LGBTQ civil rights organization.

“West Virginia has made important strides in ensuring that LGBTQ people feel safe to live, work and raise a family,” Schneider said. “Our communities should feel proud of the progress we’ve made in a year, but we can’t stop now. All LGBTQ people — no matter their ZIP code — should be equally protected. It’s time for our legislators to adopt a statewide law banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.”

To read the full report from the HRC, visit www.hrc.org/mei.

Feedback sought on proposed Ohio River bridge near Merritts Creek

HUNTINGTON — Area residents are being asked for their opinions on the proposed construction of a bridge that, if completed, would cross the Ohio River northeast of Huntington.

The KYOVA Interstate Planning Commission will hold an open house from 4 to 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 20, at its office in Huntington, located at 400 3rd Ave. Representatives will give a presentation at 6 p.m. to discuss a feasibility study that will evaluate the need for a new crossing connecting Ohio 7 and W.Va. 2.

Such a bridge would be the final step in completing the long-anticipated Tri-State Outer Belt linking Ohio, West Virginia and key segments of Interstate 64. Earlier this month, the Ohio Department of Transportation recommended $5 million in funding for the second phase of that state’s portion of the project, which would construct a 4 1/2-mile bypass connecting Chesapeake and Proctorville.

In West Virginia, the feasibility study identified three potential corridors for the location of the proposed bridge, which would be called the Huntington Outer Belt. The study evaluated the corridors’ ability to meet future traffic needs, enhance regional connectivity, support future economic development and create more pedestrian use while minimizing impacts to the community and environment.

One corridor would have a crossing near W.Va. 2 (Ohio River Road) and W.Va. 193 (Big Ben Bowen Highway). A crossing there would provide the most direct connection between W.Va. 193 and Ohio 7, according to the study. If completed, the existing W.Va. 2/W.Va. 193 intersection would be upgraded to a diamond interchange with an overpass bridge to accommodate four travel lanes. Ohio 7 would also be upgraded to four lanes.

Another corridor would have a crossing near W.Va. 2 and County Route 11 (Big Seven Mile Road). This corridor is along Cox Landing Road, extending over the Ohio River before intersecting with Ohio 7. If completed, the existing West Virginia intersection and Ohio 7 would be upgraded to four lanes.

The third corridor is located less than a mile south of County Route 7 (Nine Mile Road) along Douthat Lane, extending over the Ohio River and intersecting Ohio 7 near Private Road 1286. This corridor would feature flyover ramps for northbound traffic on Ohio 7 due to width restrictions beside the Ohio River.

The team with KYOVA will include feedback from Wednesday’s open house in a draft report to be completed in spring 2020. A final report is scheduled for June 30, 2020, and will review regional transportation needs and financial requirements to determine if the project should be carried on to the next phase.

“Should the recommendations from the Ohio River Bridge Crossing Feasibility Study advance, detailed public involvement, environmental studies, roadway alignments and bridge designs would occur,” according to the study. “The advanced phase would complete National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) documentation and detailed design plans.”

The study was sponsored by KYOVA, Lawrence County, Ohio, Cabell County and the village of Barboursville.

To learn more about the proposed bridge and to give feedback on the project, visit ohioriverbridgecrossing.com. All feedback is due no later than Dec. 20.

Audit finds CPS did not promptly respond to half of child abuse reports, left kids at risk

CHARLESTON — Child Protective Services workers, mandated by West Virginia law to investigate child abuse allegations, failed to look into half of the reports of child abuse in 2018 in the required time.

That failure to promptly investigate abuse and neglect allegations left children at significant risk, according to a new state audit of the Bureau for Children and Families.

“When a report of child abuse and/or neglect goes without being investigated in a timely manner, the risk that further harm or possibly death may occur to the child increases,” auditors said in the report.

Melissa Bishop, of the Legislative Auditor’s Office, presented the report Tuesday to lawmakers, who accepted the report with little comment.

The audit also highlighted West Virginia’s ongoing issues with hiring and keeping CPS workers as caseloads have spiked during the state’s drug epidemic. The report noted that staffing issues had played a role in the inability to promptly look into reports of abuse and neglect.

CPS workers required by law to meet alleged victim

West Virginia law states that CPS workers must ensure children are protected. Case workers are required to conduct a face-to-face interview with a child within 14 days of receiving a report that the child has been abused.

Allegations of serious physical child abuse require a face-to-face interview between a case worker and alleged victim within three days of the initial report.

The Bureau for Children and Families, under the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, voluntarily tracks and reports child abuse data every year to the federal government. The information includes statistics on the timeliness of initial contact with the alleged victim.

“Based on the numbers provided by the Bureau for Children and Families for federal fiscal year 2018, CPS only met the required time frame approximately 50% of the time,” the audit said.

The audit did not share when case workers, on average, were able to investigate abuse reports after missing the appropriate time frame.

Sam Hickman, executive director of the West Virginia chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, called the audit findings “dramatic,” but emphasized the report “didn’t tell the whole picture.”

Investigating reports of abuse can be a dangerous job, he said.

“They’re not welcomed with open arms when they show up at a door. People don’t want to be questioned,” Hickman said. “There are policies in place that suggest a case worker can ask for (law enforcement) to accompany them, but, too often, (case workers) don’t want to impose.”

Case workers also pointed to “other factors that are beyond (their) control,” including difficulty finding family members because of incorrect information or families not being home when the case worker arrives.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Cammie Chapman, associate general counsel for the bureau, told lawmakers the agency is working with the federal Administration for Children and Families on an improvement plan to address interview difficulties that should be done by the end of the year.

Ongoing CPS retention issues outlined in audit

CPS workers, according to the audit, also cited ongoing staffing shortages as a reason for the missed time frames.

“Limited qualified candidates, stringent licensure requirements, high turnover, low salaries and increased workloads are many of the factors contributing to CPS’s staffing issues,” the audit said.

The state has made some strides in dealing with case worker vacancies, which was noted in the audit. DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch said last month that the department added more than 50 CPS positions in the past year. Chapman said the agency will ask for more staff and another salary increase for CPS workers in January, when the Legislature returns for its regular session.

However, the audit found that the DHHR still struggled with a 27% case worker turnover rate this year — although an improvement from the previous year — and 18% of the state’s case worker positions were vacant.

Bishop said the auditors felt the turnover rate is partly due to higher salaries in surrounding states along with licensing discrepancies. West Virginia requires a social work license, while Kentucky and Pennsylvania do not.

Additionally, the audit noted, “CPS has struggled for over 20 years with meeting statutory time frames for making initial contact with alleged child victims of abuse and/or neglect.”

A 2014 legislative audit reported a response rate of only 33% for face-to-face contact with the alleged victim within 14 days.

The new audit recommended that the DHHR submit an improvement plan to the Legislative Auditor’s Office by April 1.

“It is imperative that CPS further address this issue by determining the specific causes for not meeting the statutory requirements and develop and implement a plan to increase its effectiveness in meeting such time frames,” the audit said.

Foster care lawsuit also criticizes CPS

A federal lawsuit filed last month cited the overburdened case workers as part of its allegations against the state’s foster care overseers.

Advocacy groups and the Charleston law firm Shaffer & Shaffer sued the DHHR and state leaders for their alleged failure to protect more than 6,000 children in state custody.

According to the 100-plus-page complaint, foster children have been abused while in the state’s care, left without necessary services and placed in dangerous homes and facilities.

The lawsuit also alleges that the DHHR allowed unqualified workers to take on CPS positions, including college graduates with degrees other than social work who were employed in critical shortage areas.

The state’s “lax standards for job applicants,” according to the lawsuit, included failure to properly screen potential employees for criminal or drug-related history.

“Additionally, West Virginia has failed for years to ensure that its case workers carry caseloads consistent with reasonable professional standards,” the lawsuit states.

Bishop said that, while the audit did not find any cases of CPS workers without licenses, the bureau struggled with record keeping. The audit did find workers who had no documentation of ever having had a background check. Chapman chalked it up to longtime employees and bad record keeping, despite the fact that CPS workers should have a criminal background check run every five years.

Crouch has disputed the lawsuit and said it will cost the state “millions of dollars” to defend.

Photographers consider gratitude, love for city

HUNTINGTON — Huntington area photographers were encouraged this season to look through their lenses to examine what in the city makes them “grateful” this fall.

Photo contest judges considered more than 75 submissions to the Greater Huntington Park & Recreation District-sponsored photo contest, the theme of which was “What about the Huntington area are you especially grateful for?”

Among the contestants were Huntington High School students, who produced 32 submissions.

Prizes were awarded Tuesday evening during a reception at the Ritter Park Rose Garden Room With A View. The first-place ribbon went to Larry Rodes, of Huntington, with a photo titled “Fond Memories,” featuring children playing in a red wagon.