CHARLESTON — Despite it being mandated by law, many of the attorneys appointed to represent the best interest of a child in the middle of an abuse and neglect case in West Virginia are not meeting with the children at all, according to a survey of foster, adoptive and kinship caregivers in the state.
The West Virginia Foster, Adoptive & Kinship Parents Network, an organization representing more than 500 parents providing care for children who cannot be with their birth families, partnered with Marshall University and the Department of Health and Human Resources to develop a survey of all foster parents, adoptive parents and certified and non-certified kinship/relative caregivers throughout West Virginia. The goal was to gain a better understanding of the needs of these groups, the effectiveness of training and services currently provided, and how the child welfare system can better support families who care for children who are or were in the state’s custody.
Marissa Saunders, director of the parent network, delivered the preliminary results to the Joint Health Committee on Monday.
A guardian ad litem (GAL) is a specially trained attorney appointed by a circuit court judge to represent a child and the child’s best interests in abuse and neglect cases. Following the Rules of Procedure for Child Abuse and Neglect Proceedings, a GAL is an investigator for the court, filing a report with findings and recommendations for the judge at least five days before a disposition hearing.
Of those surveyed, mainly certified foster families, the majority said their child’s GAL did not ever interview the child in their care or the caregivers.
Similarly, caregivers were not invited to the multidisciplinary team (MDT) meetings. MDTs are a collection of people most knowledgeable about the children and families issues in an abuse and neglect case. State code includes foster parents as part of this team, but one-third of families surveyed reported they weren’t even notified of MDTs and many didn’t feel their voices mattered to the court system.
Several legislators appeared unsurprised by the survey results, stating they have heard similar things from several foster families in their districts.
During a presentation later in the committee meeting by the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals on foster and adoptive law, Hardy County Judge Carter Williams said a good judge needs all the information they can get on an abuse and neglect case, and most of that information comes from the foster parent and school. He said the third group listed in the MDT code was foster parents.
“That’s the primary way a foster parent is kept in the loop,” Williams said. “If that is not happening, it should be because it’s straight out of code.”
The Supreme Court is already implementing plans to address concerns with GALs and MDTs. Incoming Chief Justice Tim Armstead — who will take over as chief in the new year — said justices heard concerns from foster families, and while they don’t have an exact timeline, they consider it an urgent issue.
“We have seen guardian ad litems come to the Supreme Court for cases that reach that level and we have recognized issues,” Armstead said. “We are doing it quickly. We understand the urgency and the need.”
The Division of Children and Juvenile Services has designated a staff person — Susie Mullins — to receive and log complaints regarding the work performance of GALs. Mullins will then direct concerns to the appropriate circuit judge.
The Court Improvement Program and a group of judges are also working over the coming year to develop guidelines and expectations for GALs.
The Court Improvement Program is also analyzing MDTs, hoping to use them to improve the quality of court hearings. Along with speaking with foster parents, probation officers and even the Department of Education, the court will use its own data to review the correlation between achieving permanency for children and the MDT process.
However, Cindy Largent-Hill, director of the Division of Children and Juvenile Services, said MDTs are initiated by the DHHR caseworker and the issue of foster parents not being invited to meetings is an issue to be addressed within the CPS system.
Assistance in this area would go a long way. A wide majority of survey respondents said assistance in advocating for their rights and the rights of the children in their care would make them more successful caregivers, as would being involved in the decision-making process and having their voice heard in court.
Along with need for advocacy and having a voice in the court system, recurring themes of the survey included the need for better communication and more peer support.
Many responded that communications among the different agencies — DHHR, private agency, the courts — were not consistent. Saunders said she thinks one reason for this is not all people working on a case are privy to the same information.
The majority of respondents, 91%, said they believed peer support from fellow foster/adoptive/kinship parents was important but only one-third has access to peer supports. About half are finding support online, like in Facebook groups.
Saunders said the biggest takeaway from the survey so far has been it won’t take a big policy change or a bunch of money to help foster, adoptive and kinship families.
“It just requires us to value and honor foster, adoptive and kinship parents for their contributions,” she said.
More than 1,000 foster, adoptive and kinship parents took the survey. Saunders said they were very pleased with that number based on surveys done in neighboring states. One state only had 18 respond and another was pleased with just over 200, she said.