CHARLESTON — With the bill clear of the House, the West Virginia Senate now has its chance to vet a bill advocates say strengthens the foster care system in West Virginia.
The House passed House Bill 4092 on Tuesday, 96-1. Del. Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock, was the lone nay vote after questioning the bill’s fiscal note.
The bill builds upon changes made last session with House Bill 2010. It creates a foster child bill of rights as well as a foster/kinship/adoptive parent bill of rights, both of which can be investigated by the ombudsman created last year and enforced by the attorney general.
For foster children, rights include being able to stay with siblings and being able to contact their birth family if they want.
Foster parent rights include the right to intervene in court proceedings and the right to 14 days of respite care a year.
It also expands reasonable and prudent parenting standards and requires guardians ad litem representing children in abuse and neglect cases to share their report with the child’s caregiver before it’s turned over to the judge.
It also increases the reimbursement given to foster families from $600 a month per child to $900 a month per child if they foster through the state, and increases child placement agency reimbursements from the state. The increases will cost the state an estimated $16.9 million, with an additional $14 million in federal dollars.
“This bill has a lot of good policy, but it also has a significant financial piece. This is the first big nut we’re going to send across to the Senate,” said Del. Mick Bates, D-Raleigh. “I very much appreciate the chairman (of Finance) looking at his budget, and working with him, we want to make sure that this bill — that is important to us all — is adequately funded. …
“We’ve done good work here, but the job is not done. We need to defend our policy, but also to defend our decision to make sure our funding for this problem and the money that goes to these children and families is taken care of in context of the overall budget.”
Where exactly the funding will come from has yet to be determined. Del. Jeff Pack, R-Raleigh, a lead sponsor of the bill, said he thinks it can be found in other areas of the budget instead of a one-line-item increase. In his proposed budget, the governor has allocated $26.4 million in Child Protective Services improvements, including $14 million for social services.
Marissa Sanders, director of the West Virginia Foster, Adoptive and Kinship Parent Network, said she is pleased with the current state of the bill. She said she hopes the Senate will pass it as written.
“They keep making it better,” she said. “Every committee and every amendment has really made it better and stronger. I think it’s a great bill right now, and it’s going to have a huge impact on foster families, kids in foster care and go a long way in strengthening the foster care system.”
Sanders said the bill of rights is a game-changer because it gives everyone in the system a voice. The increased payments will also go a long way to help recruit and retain foster families, many of whom incur out-of-pocket expenses to ensure the children in their care have what they need.
“If the state takes a child into their custody, it is the state’s responsibility to meet their needs,” Sanders said. “To shirk that responsibility onto families or agencies doesn’t work.”
Sanders said she really appreciated the bipartisanship shown in working to improve and pass the bill, but, most important, she appreciated that the voices of foster families were heard this session.
“We really had a movement of people saying we’ve got to strengthen this system,” she said.