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Sholten Singer/The Herald-Dispatch Stepping Stones Executive Director Susan Fry speaks before announcing a $15,000 donation from Cabell Huntington Hospital during their annual golf tournament on Saturday, June 9, 2018, at Creekside Golf Course in Lavalette.

HUNTINGTON - Following the West Virginia Senate Finance Committee meeting Tuesday night, Susan Fry, executive director of Stepping Stones child residential treatment center in Lavalette, was shocked and hurt by comments made by senators and Department of Health and Human Resources representatives about the residential treatment centers in the state.

"But we all showed up to work today and we are taking care of those kids for the state and for the department," Fry said Wednesday afternoon.

Tuesday night's Finance Committee meeting was House Bill 2010, the major foster care reform bill's, final committee stop. With nine major provisions, a transition to managed care for health care service coordination and a residential center "no eject/no reject" clause have been the most controversial aspects of the bill.

The "no eject/no reject" provision is aimed at keeping more West Virginia children in the state, says DHHR deputy secretary Jeremiah Samples. The provision would require residential centers take any child the department deems meets the center's criteria.

"The department feels it is problematic or at least very hard to accomplish the out-of-state goals without the no reject/no eject provisions in the bill," Samples told the Finance Committee on Tuesday. "There is concern that the (centers) get to cherry-pick, and certain centers, even though the center has held itself out with certain criteria, will simply not take a child because a lot of these children, as I'm sure you know, have behavioral issues and they have histories."

Samples went on to say there are 100 vacancies at any given time in the state's residential centers, and DHHR knows there are children who were placed out of state who could be in state if a center had not rejected them.

Fry says it is all untrue - from the number of vacancies to the reasons centers reject placements to the idea centers can cherry-pick.

First, Fry said she and her colleagues disagree that children are being placed out of state because their residential facilities refuse to take them.

"One, we don't have the capacity and the specific programs to meet their needs in West Virginia," she said. "We have tried for decades to get DHHR to let that money going out of state follow the child back to build these programs and increase capacity and training. Two, it boils down to some systemic issues. Sometimes a bed is needed immediately, and out of state has a bed and there may not be openings in West Virginia."

Second, Fry said the notion that there are 100 vacant beds available for the more than 400 out-of-state children to be brought back is misleading. Forty beds have been put on hold by the department between two facilities, and level one centers can't take most kids. And even if a judge did order the children back under the "no reject" provision, there would still be more than 300 children placed out of state, she said.

And the centers are certainly not cherry-picking and profiting off the foster children, Fry said.

"I am not profiting," she said, noting her nonprofit center was $150,000 in the hole the last time she checked. "My staff give their hearts. They sacrifice their family. They miss vacations. They work hours nobody else would want to work for these children. We are not the enemy that we've been portrayed to be. (Tuesday) night, words were used that 'shameful behavior has to stop.' We are the ones who take the kids nobody else wants. In my career, I have never felt so disparaged, not appreciated."

Fry said the reason so many children are sent out of state is because everyone has failed them.

"Certainly, for DHHR to be presenting through five committees that all we have to do is make residential treatment facilities take these kids and we solve the problem is a lack of vision and is sad because it won't work," she said.

And while the department says they need to contract a managed care organization because they don't have the expertise to coordinate health care for foster children, Fry said she doesn't believe they have the expertise to properly place children in treatment facilities either.

"I have 35 years' experience," she said. "I have a professional, ethical and moral responsibility to only take kids I know we have the capacity, expertise and training to keep that child safe, meet their needs and keep other children, staff and the community safe. For me to take a child I know I can't do that for is a violation of that child's civil rights."

Fry said she is not anti-DHHR, but it is frustrating because, as Samples explained, no residential treatment facilities were contacted while the legislation was being drafted. The bill is not a DHHR-requested bill.

The no reject/no eject provision was also added into residential facility contracts a few years ago, and the centers joined together to sue DHHR in a case that made it to the state Supreme Court. An agreement was reached, Fry said, and everyone agreed to move forward and do what was best for the kids.

"It feels a bit like, OK, well, we will just put it in code then," she said.

Fry said she knows everyone has the same goal - bring more West Virginia children back and find them foster homes - but it's going to take true partnership to do that.

"We have the experience. These are our kids," Fry said. "It's a shame that it's being done at a legislative level and not in partnership. To that I say shame on all of us."

The provision has been amended, removed and placed back in as it moved through the process. It will be able to be further amended Thursday, March 7, during the Senate's second reading of the bill.

Follow reporter Taylor Stuck on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.

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