Del. Jeff Pack

Del. Jeff Pack, R-Raleigh, majority vice chairman of the House Health and Human Resources Committee, speaks during a committee meeting on Jan. 14 in Charleston.

CHARLESTON — Members of the House Health and Human Resources Committee on Thursday tweaked the major foster care reform bill, addressing more issues with the system including reimbursement disparities for foster families and ineffective guardians ad litem.

House Bill 4092 continues to build on changes made last session with House Bill 2010. It creates a foster children bill of rights and a foster/kinship parent bill of rights, by which violations will be investigated by the foster care ombudsman and enforced by the attorney general. It also updates the “reasonable and prudent parenting standards” and updates the travel policy for foster parents, now allowing for an overnight stay lasting less than 24 hours without notifying a caseworker.

New to the bill is a requirement that all families fostering through the Department of Health and Human Resources, including certified kinship families, be provided at least $900 per month for each child placed in the home. Currently, foster families and certified kinship caregivers through the department receive about $600 a month, or $20 a day, per child. Child placement agencies are required to reimburse foster families between $20 and $22 a day, but Amy Rickman, director of Necco West Virginia, said they reimburse at a higher rate than that to help recruit families.

Linda Watts, commissioner for the Bureau for Children and Families, estimated the new requirement would cost between $14 million and $16 million, which gave some delegates heartburn. Del. Jim Butler, R-Mason, said while he wants to help families more, without a firm number on how much it would cost, he did not think it was prudent to include the amendment at this time, especially because the bill is only second referenced to the Judiciary Committee and not Finance.

Del. Jeff Pack, R-Raleigh, said he initially was hesitant about the addition but said he figured the bill would end up in Finance, which would give DHHR plenty of time to figure out the fiscal impact.

“This is a phenomenal bill,” Pack said. “I said to someone earlier if I am never part of anything else going forward, to be a part of something that does so much good for foster families, I can die happy. With that being said, I support this note with the understanding that it has a ways to go and we will have the opportunity to figure this out, but I don’t want this to die here and now.”

The bill also now requires DHHR pay child placement agencies a minimum daily rate of $75 for services provided to each child in placement, with the agency reimbursing foster parents at least 40% of that rate. Pack said $75 is the average daily operating cost for child placement agencies, and the goal is to have them break even so they can use fundraisers to provide even more support services for children and families.

Pack also offered an amendment, which was accepted, which requires guardians ad litem, the court-appointed representation for a child in abuse and neglect cases, give their report to the parent, guardian or custodian (or their counsel) within five days of a dispositional hearing. The report must contain the signature of the foster parent indicating the guardian ad litem met with the child.

This is in response to the majority of foster and kinship parents stating in a recent survey that guardians ad litem never met with the child they represent.

Delegates removed from the bill a provision that would have mandated the DHHR create a database of foster families. The goal behind the database was to make it easier for Child Protective Services caseworkers to find appropriate placements for children and to target recruitment of foster families, Marissa Sanders, director of the Foster, Adoptive and Kinship Parent Network, told legislators Thursday. She said the database is recommended by CHAMPS, a national foster parent policy advocacy group.

However, DHHR and the contracted child placement agencies had concerns about the database, DHHR Deputy Secretary Jeremiah Samples said. DHHR feared it would be confusing for CPS workers and the placement agencies were concerned it could be used to poach families from other agencies. Samples said the department already has a database and they are trying to work it into the new performance-based contracts provided for by HB 2010.

Del. Andrew Robinson, D-Kanawha, wrote up an amendment to the language of the bill that appeared to satisfy DHHR, but delegates did not approve his amendment or the amendment to keep the database mandate in the bill.

Follow reporter Taylor Stuck on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.

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