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Lawsuit alleges state of W.Va. violates rights of foster children

HUNTINGTON — A federal class-action lawsuit has been filed against Gov. Jim Justice and his Department of Health and Human Resources, alleging the state has violated the federal and constitutional rights of the more than 6,000 children in the state’s custody.

Twelve children in the state’s foster care system, ranging from ages 2 to 17, are named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed by A Better Childhood, a national advocacy group for children, Disability Rights West Virginia, a statewide disability rights organization, and Shaffer & Shaffer PLLC, a state law firm.

Lawyers for the children cite a range of alarming statistics and charge the state and DHHR with failing to provide the necessary services that will protect all of the children in the state’s custody. The lawsuit is brought as a class action, seeking to represent all of the 6,800 children in foster care, and focuses on three subclasses of children: 1,700 in foster care with disabilities, 1,600 close to aging out of the system without any preparation for adulthood, and 3,400 children in kinship care.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for Southern West Virginia, seeks an order directing the fundamental reform of the state’s foster care system. The lawsuit names Justice, DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch, DHHR Deputy Secretary Jeremiah Samples, and Linda Watts, commissioner of the Bureau of Children Welfare.

The information pertaining to the lawsuit was provided to The Herald-Dispatch as confidential until midnight Tuesday, so the state could not be contacted for comment for this story.

Many of the statistics and issues cited in the lawsuit are issues DHHR has been open about, including high rates of institutionalism for older children, high rates of out-of-state placements, overloaded caseworkers, lack of adequate foster families, and a lack of services for children with severe emotional and behavioral issues.

Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of A Better Childhood, said her organization conducted hundreds of interviews with foster children, foster families, former child welfare workers and lawyers before determining a lawsuit was the best course of action to create change.

“The problems in the foster care system have been a problem for a very long time,” Lowry said. “We know the opioid crisis is a piece of it, but it’s not what caused the problems. The problems have been there for 15 years. No one stepped up. It’s a failure of leadership, a failure of people not paying attention to the problem. Sure, the opioid crisis has driven numbers up, but it’s been a problem for a long time.”

The 12 plaintiff stories paint a picture of system failures — if you can call such a tattered system a system, Lowry said — that lead to further harm to already neglected and abused children.

Dennis C., for example, is a 16-year-old with cerebral palsy, most likely the result of shaken baby syndrome. He was split from his younger brother and bounced from placement to placement. He was at one point placed in the care of his step-grandmother, but he did not receive any support for the trauma he already experienced and acted out.

He now resides in a residential treatment center that provides a higher level of care than is necessary.

Despite Dennis’ expressed desire to graduate from high school and eventually to live on his own, DHHR’s plan is to transition him to the adult side of the facility he is in, setting him up to be institutionalized for the rest of his life, according to the lawsuit.

Then there are toddlers Calvin, Chris and Caroline, who have been in state custody nearly since birth. Their first foster family made moves to adopt them, but when they had to move for work, the adoption fell through, mainly because of DHHR, the suit alleges. They’ve since bounced from placement to placement.

Other stories tell of traumatized children who acted out in fear or anger, and instead of receiving help, were taken to yet another family, group home or treatment center. Many are behind in school or barely receiving any formal education. The older plaintiffs do not have any permanency plans in place, nor do they have a plan for when they age out of the system.

The lawsuit also alleges the 49% of foster youths in the care of a relative, or kinship care, are also being neglected by the state.

Lowry said kinship care is not bad, but when children are being “dumped” into houses without checks and check-ups, it can be.

A little less than half of kinship placements are not certified. This means families do not receive the same funding as certified families, but the children should still have regular check-ins with caseworkers. Oftentimes, they do not, the suit alleges with support from a 2019 independent study of West Virginia kinship care.

The suit contends that the measures the state has taken already to try and improve the system are too little, too late. The reform bill passed in the Legislature this past session does not go far enough to address all of the issues with the system, and the state’s current memorandum of understanding with the U.S. Department of Justice has “no teeth.”

Lowry said she hopes the state realizes how serious the lawsuit is and seriously consider their response to it. She said they will be pursuing it as vigorously as they can.

Breast cancer survivors paint downtown Huntington pink

HUNTINGTON — Breast cancer survivors joined family, friends and the doctors who treated them Monday night to illuminate downtown Huntington in a pink glow.

During a ceremony dubbed “Paint the Town Pink” at Pullman Square, survivors shared some of their stories before flipping a human-sized light switch. For the month of October, Cabell Huntington Hospital, St. Mary’s Hospital and Pullman Square will be lit with various shades of pink in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

The theme of the evening was “stronger together,” which was reinforced with a video presentation of survivors thanking the people who helped them get through their diagnoses, treatment and remission.

One of the survivors to tell her story was Jinnie Knight, a nurse at St. Mary’s Hospital. Knight was diagnosed with breast cancer in February and was declared cancer-free by June. She got through the ordeal thanks to the support of her daughter Alli, she said.

“Nobody knows when they are going to face a diagnosis like breast cancer. When it does hit you, it can sometimes blindside you,” Knight said. “But when you have support with (you) the whole way and family, it makes the difference.”

Knight said she was also supported by her physician, Dr. Benjamin Moosavi, and his team of nurses. They helped her through her treatment and made sure she was never alone, she said.

Another survivor to tell her story was T.C. Clements, a fourth-grade teacher at Highlawn Elementary School. Clements said her students helped her get through treatment 15 years ago. She wore a hot-pink wig on one of her first days back to school, which kept everyone laughing, she said.

Answering some of the children’s questions about cancer helped her come to terms with it, including whether she was bald or not. She surprised her students by taking off her bandana to show them, she said.

“They were available to ask any question, it didn’t bother me what they wanted to know,” Clements said. “It made it a whole lot easier because when you try to hide it from the kids, then it makes them think, ‘Maybe she is going to die.’”

Clements said the whole ordeal opened her eyes to how many people love and support her. She received cards and messages from people she didn’t even know, she said.

“The journey was well worth it,” Clements said. “I got to educate my kids on breast cancer, we got to spread love and we got to give out hats and scarves. We just made it better for people going through it.”

Monday’s event was sponsored by Cabell Huntington Hospital, St. Mary’s Medical Center and Downtown Huntington Partners INC.

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Four graduates celebrate completion of drug court program

HUNTINGTON — Cabell County Circuit Court Judge Greg Howard said of the 60 people accepted into the county’s adult drug court program at any given time, only about half will go on to graduate.

The Cabell County Adult Drug Court program requires at least a year of random drug screenings, group and individual therapy sessions, weekly court hearings, regular employment and overall lifestyle changes. For those who can handle it, the program gives an opportunity for a second chance in life.

Four people celebrated their second chances on Monday, graduating from the program during a ceremony before a courtroom of family, friends and current drug court participants.

Robyn Sullivan spoke directly to those current participants when reflecting on her time in the program. She fled from the program more than a year ago before her probation officer persuaded her to come back. She now sponsors others in recovery and has made therapy work her profession.

“What we have in drug court is called an honest relapse. That’s the time we go get high one more time and then call our POs and let them know that we did it,” Sullivan said. “What they don’t mention is that you may not walk back through that door. That one warning that you get might be your last one.”

Wanda Riffe, drug court therapist, said she was proud to watch Sullivan’s journey and to see her spread her knowledge of recovery to others.

Travis Hale completed his drug court requirements after about a year within the program, which sometimes takes people two years or more to accomplish. Nancy Roach completed the program without any bumps in the road, which could have included warnings, sanctions or jail time, Howard said.

Hale and Roach absorbed what the program was trying to teach them and made the most of their new opportunities, said Matt Meadows, drug court probation officer.

“They stopped trying to tell me what they think I want to hear and actually started to internalize some of the stuff they are hearing in these meetings,” Meadows said.

Matt Anderson completed the program after being transferred from Kanawha County Drug Court. Howard said he wasn’t sure what to expect, but Anderson proved himself without receiving any sanctions.

Anderson’s probation officer, Lauren Dodrill, said she saw how kind and giving he was to others who needed it. She’s currently on maternity leave, but sent her congratulations via Meadows.

“Specifically she wanted me to highlight Matt Anderson’s heart, how giving and caring he is for other people and how much he gives of himself to other people,” Meadows said.

Monday’s graduation was attended by West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals Justice Evan Jenkins and Nick Leftwich, state drug court coordinator. Jenkins said he spent time before the graduation ceremony meeting with family and friends who supported the graduates throughout their journey.

“That’s what it’s all about. It’s the network support,” Jenkins said. “We don’t go through life in a journey by ourselves. It takes a lot of people around us.”

Leftwich said success in drug court comes to those that trust the process and follow through with it.

“For those that are currently in drug court, you will have your day up here if you trust that process,” Leftwich said.