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More child welfare reform coming in 2020

HUNTINGTON — Legislators in 2019 passed the first major child welfare reform bill in years and are already working on bills to complement the work they did last session.

Members of the Joint Health Committee received packets of some of the planned 2020 legislation during the November and December interims, which includes four bills relating to the child welfare system. The bills address issues from adoption timelines to Child Protective Services employee recruitment and retention.

The largest of the bills, which are not yet numbered, creates, among other things, a foster child bill of rights and a foster parent/kinship parent bill of rights.

The bill removes the current foster child bill of rights currently in code, replacing it with a longer, more specific list of rights. The bill states the Legislature finds it is in the best interest of West Virginia’s children to acknowledge foster children as active and participating members of the system.

The new bill of rights is a collection of liberties that give foster children agency over their situation, along with the agency to be a kid. Some rights include: the ability to review their case plan; visit and contact with brothers and sisters; to attend school of origin if possible and participate in extracurricular activities; to attend court and speak with the judge; and to have storage space for private use.

Similarly, the foster parents’ and kinship bill of rights states the Legislature finds it is in the best interest of West Virginia’s child welfare system to acknowledge foster parents and kinship caregivers as active and participating members of the system. The bill spells out the rights caregivers have, including the right to have a written copy of their child’s treatment and service plan and the right to 14 days of respite care a year.

Both bills of rights specify the state cannot be sued civilly for failure to enforce the rights; however, the foster care ombudsman will enforce the rights.

The bill also expands on “reasonable and prudent parenting standards,” some of which were included in the 2019 reform bill. “Reasonable and prudent parenting” is the national standard that gives foster parents the authority to make day-to-day decisions affecting children in their care, such as allowing them to participate in extracurricular activities.

The bill will also create a foster family database. The goal of the database will be to help social workers and child placement agencies match children with foster families and target recruitment. The bill also raises the limit on the number of foster children in a home from five to six.

Legislators will also consider a bill aimed at recruiting and retaining CPS workers. The bill sets CPS caseworker classifications with starting salaries from $32,500 for trainees and investigators to $55,000 for supervisors. It also creates a registration requirement for CPS caseworkers and will allow caseworkers to file a grievance if their caseload goes over 25.

The Bureau for Children and Families would also be required to create a new team of five to 10 CPS caseworkers who specialize in bringing foster children back to West Virginia who are in out-of-state residential facilities. The team would evaluate children with the longest length of stay and develop a case plan to transition them to foster or kinship homes.

Another bill would eliminate the 45-day wait period between filing a petition for adoption of a child and the court hearing, along with requiring the adoption hearing take place in the county the foster child was originally removed from. It would also require DHHR pay child placement agencies for adoption services with funds the state receives from the federal government.

Finally, a fourth bill will flesh out the responsibilities of the child welfare ombudsman. The ombudsman position was added to the 2019 reform bill late in the game as a measure to compromise with Democrats wary of the new managed care organization provision. The bill creates access to foster care children and records, including subpoena powers, to assist in investigations of complaints.

The 2020 legislative session begins Wednesday, Jan. 8. The Joint Health Committee will meet Monday and will discuss the child welfare reform bills.

Huntington mayor to meet with bar owners over proposed ban

HUNTINGTON — Huntington Mayor Steve Williams intends to meet with “responsible bar owners” in the coming weeks to gather their feedback on his proposal to block new bars from opening within the city.

Williams said the city already has enough bars and he wants to prevent another incident like what happened early Wednesday morning, in which seven people were shot following an argument inside Kulture Hookah Bar at 1113 4th Ave. The city determined the bar was not legitimate because its owners did not receive proper permits, including obtaining a state liquor license, before opening.

Meanwhile, the owner of one bar in the area said he is concerned the shooting will hurt his business and another nearby business owner reassured people that any bad reputation about downtown is undeserved.

During a news conference Thursday following the shooting, Williams said he will work with members of Huntington City Council to change the city’s existing zoning ordinances. He is seeking to prevent the over-development of new bars, he said, and any changes would not affect already existing bars within the city.

Before doing so, Williams wants to meet with a small group of bar owners to discuss various issues and collect their feedback about his proposal, said Bryan Chambers, the city’s communications director.

Williams has already met with several business owners along 4th Avenue to hear their concerns and to help get out the message that downtown Huntington is safe.

“We sincerely appreciate the investments that these business owners have made in our downtown,” Chambers said. “They are the heartbeat of downtown, and we are going to do whatever is necessary to protect their livelihoods and their significant investments they have made.”

Jacob McComas, owner of Jewel City Barber Shop on 4th Avenue, said Williams stopped by his store Friday to talk with employees about their safety concerns and to hear any criticisms they had.

“He just came in, gave me his card with his personal number and said if we had any questions he would answer them and we could call him anytime,” McComas said.

McComas said he is not worried about losing business following Wednesday’s shooting because his clientele understand his store and its surroundings are safe. He also believes people understand the shooting was an isolated incident and not a reflection on the entire downtown as a whole.

However, one nearby bar owner said he’s worried the shooting will affect his business as people fear the reputation of the block where it occurred. The shooting was initially incorrectly reported at the Union Pub & Grill before officers realized it had happened outside Kulture Hookah Bar, which was just a few feet away.

Union Pub & Grill owner Herb Stanley said he fears that confusion will lead people to believe his block is not safe, despite his efforts to have the city crack down on Kulture Hookah Bar prior to the shooting.

Stanley said the bar opened two weeks before it obtained a special permit from the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals. That special permit allowed Kulture to seek and obtain a required state liquor license before opening, which the city said it never did. Stanley said he questioned city officials and the Cabell-Huntington Health Department about the bar, especially its use of hookah pipes.

Kulture’s co-owner, Charon Reese, had told the appeals board she wanted to open the bar to provide a place for people 25 and older to be together and be away from the college bar crowd. She also said the bar would be a calm location without music blaring on its speakers.

Stanley said that was not the case as soon as the bar opened. Fliers for the bar advertised several dance contests, free entry for Marshall students and performances by rappers and DJs.

“She said she wanted a nice place 25 and up, yet she had bodyguards standing outside with bulletproof vests on,” he said.

Police are still searching for the man they said was responsible for Wednesday’s shooting, Kymonie Desean Davis, 30, of Detroit, Michigan. An arrest warrant for Davis charges him with seven counts of wanton endangerment and one count of malicious wounding. He also has active warrants locally for burglary and domestic battery and is wanted for fraud in Illinois with no extradition.

As of Thursday, police said two of the seven victims were in critical, but stable condition in the hospital. The city has since issued a cease-and-desist order on the bar, effectively shutting it down.

The Drop Youth Center sets teens, young adults on path to reach dreams

ASHLAND — The road to adulthood can be paved with many unexpected obstacles, which is why one Ashland organization is working to help transition-age teenagers and young adults recognize and meet their goals in a relaxed atmosphere.

The Drop Youth Center inside the Neighborhood Building is funded through a federal initiative called TAYLRD, which stands for Transition Age Youth Launching Realized Dreams. The TAYLRD grant was issued to Kentucky in 2015, which led to the facility’s opening nearly four years ago.

Since then, staff at The Drop said the progress they’ve seen in the youth and young adults, ages 14-25, has been nothing short of inspiring.

“Statistics show that during these ages, when they drop out of therapy or don’t know where to go for help, then they fall through the cracks,” Cassandra Hockley, on-site manager, targeted case manager and community support associate at The Drop, said. “So here, we bring them in, we make them feel welcome through our engagement tools and we connect them to the community.”

The facility features a full kitchen and living area to help clients learn daily living skills and a game room, art room, computer room and more to ensure engagement among visitors.

Participants also learn coping skills, anger management, social skills, communication, focusing skills, stress management and work with local schools to continue their education.

The Drop uses peer support specialists to identify what kind of therapy or treatment those who walk through the door may need.

“Peer support is the first one to engage individuals when they come through,” Hockley said. “They get them talking, get them to open up, and try and figure out where they need to go.”

The facility’s youth peer support specialist, Jamaka Groves, has been at The Drop for more than three years.

“I want to use my story to instill hope in them,” Groves said. “I’ve been through tough times, and I know right now they’re actively going through it.”

Groves was drawn to the profession because of her passion for helping others, and said she wanted to find a way to better the community.

“Let me show you the steps and let me give you the resources you need to get you where you need to go. Let me show you how you can get a job, and you can go to college and get a degree,” Groves said.

“I love seeing the progress, getting to see them when they first come in, and how they are, working on their goals, and seeing that progress.”

Although watching clients meet their goals is exciting, Groves and Hockley said one of their favorite parts of the job is what happens after the success — celebration.

“We had three graduating recently, and one was told they wouldn’t be allowed to walk in their spring ceremony,” Harley Nolan, youth peer support specialist coordinator and community support associate, said. “I said, ‘Why don’t we do it here?’ We had a big ceremony, the whole nine yards — they were in their caps and gowns, and they loved it.”

Staff at The Drop organize specific groups that meet regularly, including a smart recovery group, girl’s group and self-esteem group, and are working toward forming a youth council, art group and LGBTQ+ group.

A therapist and telehealth doctors are also on hand and can prescribe medication to clients. Health care, according to Hockley, is a barrier for many people at The Drop.

Overall, Hockley said, the facility’s main goal is to encourage clients to become the best version of themselves, despite the challenges they may face.

“I know there’s a stigma and nobody likes to talk about their mental health,” Hockley said. “But how are you supposed to move forward in life if you don’t talk about it?”

All resources provided by The Drop are free, as well as resources within the Neighborhood Building, including The Dressing Room, which provides clients with clean clothes; Clean Start, which provides hygiene products and haircuts; and other organizations that can assist clients in obtaining driver’s licenses and necessary paperwork.

The facility is open from 1 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, with ages 18-25 encouraged to stop by from 1 to 3 p.m. and ages 14-17 from 3:30 to 6 p.m. The Drop has a similar sister location in Louisa, Kentucky.

From resort amid palm trees, Trump settled on Iran strike

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — At the midway point of his annual Christmas vacation, President Donald Trump huddled at his Florida club with his top national security advisers. Days earlier, a rocket attack by an Iranian-funded group struck a U.S.-Iraqi base, killing an American contractor and wounding several others.

Trump’s advisers presented him with an array of options for responding, including the most dramatic possible response: taking out Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force and the man responsible for hundreds of Americans’ deaths.

Trump immediately wanted to target Soleimani. It was a decision his predecessors had avoided and one that risked inflaming tensions with Tehran. Some advisers voiced concern about the legal justification for a strike without evidence of an imminent attack in the works against Americans. So other options were discussed in the coming days with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and national security adviser Robert O’Brien, including bombing the base of the group blamed for killing the U.S. contractor.

But Trump remained focused on the option to target Soleimani, a preference that surprised the small circle of aides because the president had long been reluctant to deepen U.S. military engagement around the world. By Thursday, officials believed they had intelligence indicating Soleimani was plotting against Americans, though it’s unclear when that intelligence became known to U.S. officials.

On Saturday, the White House sent Congress formal notification under the War Powers Act of the drone strike, said a senior administration official who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and requested anonymity. The notification, required by law within 48 hours of the introduction of American forces into an armed conflict or a situation that could lead to war, has to be signed and sent to Congress.

The document sent Saturday to congressional leadership, the House speaker and the Senate president pro tempore was entirely classified, according to a senior Democratic aide and a congressional aide who were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and requested anonymity. It was unclear whether any information would be made available in a public release.

Trump slipped out of a meeting with political advisers that day to give the final go-ahead. His decision to authorize the drone strike has sent shockwaves throughout the Middle East and dramatically escalated tensions between the U.S. and Iran.

It wasn’t the first time that Trump’s lush Mar-a-Lago resort, with its $200,000 annual membership and Atlantic Ocean vistas, had been the backdrop for a momentous national security decision.

In February 2017, Trump huddled on the patio with Japan’s Shinzo Abe, in full view of club members eating dinner, to weigh a response to a North Korean missile test. Two months later, Trump authorized a U.S. missile strike on Syria, then shared chocolate cake with China’s President Xi Jinping, who was visiting Mar-a-Lago for meetings.

Trump spent much of this vacation angry about the attack on the American contractor. He stayed largely out of sight in Florida, emerging only for rounds of golf at his other nearby club and mingling with guests at a New Year’s Eve party.

Wearing a tux, Trump was asked by a reporter if he foresaw a chance of war with Iran. Raising his voice to be heard over the holiday revelers, Trump said he wanted “to have peace.”

“And Iran should want peace more than anybody,” he said. “So I don’t see that happening. No, I don’t think Iran would want that to happen. It would go very quickly.”

He betrayed no indication of the momentous decision he was already weighing. More than a half-dozen administration officials, congressional staffers and advisers close to the White House described Trump’s decision-making. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss private deliberations.

After Trump leaped at the option to take out Soleimani, national security officials debated about where the targeted strike should happen if they proceeded. Most did not want to attack Soleimani in Iraq, given the presence of U.S. troops there and the already tenuous situation on the ground. Some argued for the operation to occur when Soleimani was traveling in Lebanon or Syria. But when they learned Soleimani would be traveling to Baghdad on Jan. 2, they decided targeting him at the airport was their best opportunity.

Earlier that day, Trump was meeting with his political advisers about his re-election campaign when he was summoned to give the final go-ahead. Officials believed they had a legal justification and would cite intelligence suggesting that Soleimani was traveling in the Middle East to put final touches on plans for attacks that would have hit U.S. diplomats, soldiers and American facilities in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.

U.S. officials have not been more specific about the intelligence. A congressional aide briefed by the administration on Friday said officials offered compelling details about Iran’s intentions and capabilities, but not about the timing of the supposed attacks on Americans.

The deliberations and Trump’s final decision came quickly enough that in the hours before the attack Thursday night, contingency plans for a potential Iranian response were still being finalized. The White House communications team was not given a heads-up about the strike, leaving the staff scrambling as news of the explosion spread.

The president told one confidant after the attack that he wanted to deliver a warning to Iran not to mess with American assets. Trump said he was also eager to project global strength and replicate the message he believed he sent last year after approving the raid to kill Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: the U.S. would find its enemies anywhere in the world.

Still, administration officials acknowledged that Soleimani’s killing carried a high risk of Iranian retaliation. The Pentagon is sending nearly 3,000 more Army troops to the Mideast and some troops are on standby to travel to Beirut if more security is needed at the American Embassy there.

Hundreds of soldiers deployed Saturday from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to Kuwait. A loading ramp was filled with combat gear and restless soldiers. Some tried to grab a last-minute nap on wooden benches. The wife of a member of the 82nd Airborne who deployed earlier this past week said his departure was so abrupt she didn’t have the chance to say goodbye in person or by phone. “The kids kept going, ‘When’s Dad going to be home?’” said April Shumard, 42. “It’s literally thrown me for a loop. And him as well. He’s still in disbelief of where he’s gone. Our heads are spun.”

As Trump addressed the nation Friday for the first time after Soleimani’s killing, he declared that the Iranian general’s “reign of terror was over.”

“We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war,” he said.

With speculation mounting about Iran’s response, Trump unleashed an ominous warning on Saturday, declaring that if Tehran struck back, the U.S. had already “targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture.”

Trump did not identify the targets but added that they would be “HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD.”