West Virginia’s legislators had the choice last week of investing in the state’s foster care system or creating a new layer of courts. In the end, they decided children needed the help more than judges and lawyers. They chose wisely.
As the Legislature neared the end of its regular session, the House of Delegates and the State Senate approved House Bill 4092, the session’s comprehensive foster care reform bill. The bill includes $16.9 million that will be paired with $14 million allocated to the Department of Health and Human Resources for social services to raise the reimbursement rate for all foster families and create a new tiered reimbursement system that provides more funds for families who take on hard-to-place children, such as teenagers.
Along with the rate increases, the bill establishes a foster child and foster/kinship parent bill of rights and expands reasonable and prudent parenting standards.
The bill now awaits the governor’s signature.
The Legislature passed other bills relating to child welfare during the session.
House Bill 4094 expands upon the foster care ombudsman position created last year in the first foster care reform bill. The bill explains the roles and duties of the ombudsman, including how to investigate complaints by foster families and/or foster children and explaining subpoena powers. The bill gives the ombudsman access to confidential documents, such as medical records or a child’s case file.
“It helps strengthen accountability in our system to ensure it is meeting the needs of the children,” said Jim McKay, state coordinator of Prevent Child Abuse West Virginia.
At the request of the governor and the Department of Health and Human Resources, lawmakers provided funding for 87 more Child Protective Services workers.
In other action last week, the House rejected Senate Bill 275, which would have established an intermediate-level court that would sit between the circuit courts and family courts at one level and the Supreme Court at the other. The intermediate court would have had two districts, each with three judges who would have been elected in 2022 and begun service in January 2023. Estimates for the cost of the court ranged from $8 million to $15 million.
The State Senate had approved the intermediate court, but the House voted it down 56-44.
Delegate Chad Lovejoy, D-Cabell, summed up the question nicely during debate when he asked other delegates to ask themselves if the court was necessary and if the state could afford it.
Here the Legislature had to balance two needs. The growing number of West Virginia parents who are addicted to drugs has overwhelmed the foster care system. Something had to be done.
The Legislature’s action last week undoubtedly is only one step in dealing with a problem whose effects will be felt for decades, but it was a necessary one.
As for the intermediate court, supporters just could not make the case that they needed a larger share of state government’s resources when children are suffering and roads are falling apart.
Every year and with every piece of legislation that is introduced, legislators must weigh the needs and wants of different segments of society. In this case — children vs. courts — they made the right decision.