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Will Price/West Virginia Legislative Photography The West Virginia Capitol building is pictured during the last day of 2017 regular legislative session on Saturday, April 8.

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.

Amelia Ferrell Knisely is a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Reach her at amelia.knisely@wvgazettemail.com or follow @ameliaknisely on Twitter. Follow reporter Taylor Stuck on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.

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