CHARLESTON — With a complete fiscal note in hand, the West Virginia House of Delegates’ Finance Committee on Wednesday evening quickly passed House Bill 4092, the largest foster care reform bill of the session, sending it to the House floor for passage.
The bill creates a foster, kinship and adoptive parent bill of rights and a foster child bill of rights, among other tweaks to the child welfare code. It also increases the reimbursement paid to foster, kinship and adoptive parents.
The increase was added during the Health Committee’s review of the bill, which then required the bill to be triple referenced, which gave heartburn to some, particularly Democrats. However, the Department of Health and Human Resources was unable to provide more than a quick estimate for how much the increases would cost until Wednesday.
Under the bill, families fostering through DHHR would be paid at least $900 per month per child placed in their home, or about $30 a day — an increase of about $300 per month. Contracted child placement agencies will be paid by the department $75 a day per child in placement, with at least 40% going to the foster family. During the Health Committee meeting in January, Del. Jeff Pack, R-Raleigh, said $75 is the average operating cost for child placement agencies, and he hoped this would allow them to break even and spend their fundraising dollars toward other services for families and children.
The bill also raises the reimbursement paid to child placement agencies for successful adoptions to $1,000 and requires the department pay for 14 days of respite care for foster families.
DHHR’s fiscal note for the bill estimates the payment increases, along with other measures in the bill, will cost a little over $30 million total, with $16.9 million being from the state. The note adds this might increase, however, because the bill might affect the Legal Guardianship subsidy, which is the same as the payment to foster families. That is not accounted for in the fiscal note.
For lawmakers, raising the rate is an attempt at recruiting more foster families. At the end of January, there were more than 7,000 children in the state’s custody. Of those children, 450 were out of state, mostly in group residential homes or long-term psychiatric facilities. The state is working to bring as many of those children back to West Virginia as they can, along with removing children from in-state group homes, which requires more foster families.
Linda Watts, commissioner for the Bureau of Children and Families, said during the Health Committee meeting that the state’s success at adoptions also hurts them because about 12% come from foster care placements. Many families, once they adopt, no longer foster. Watts also said one reason families refuse to take older children is due to the reimbursement paired with the additional support and training they need.
The bill passed the Finance Committee without any discussion, though Pack did thank the committee chairman for working on the bill. The bill could have its first reading on the House floor as early as Friday, Feb. 14.