CHARLESTON — Work is underway to give foster families and relatives taking care of the about 7,000 kids in state custody a way to file complaints about those children’s ability to receive health care and other concerns about their well-being.

Within the next month or so, the state Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) aims to begin soliciting applications for the state foster care ombudsman position.

The ombudsman will, among other things, track foster families’ complaints about agencies they deal with, including social service agencies, public agencies, including DHHR itself, and managed care organizations.

During the 2019 legislative session, West Virginia lawmakers added a provision creating a state foster care ombudsman to a bill transitioning foster children to managed care. States pay managed care organizations to reduce Medicaid costs while aiming to improve health care quality.

Some child welfare advocates had concerns that a managed care organization would be more focused on profit than child welfare.

During a meeting last week of the Child Welfare Collaborative, an open group focused on child welfare and facilitated by DHHR, attendees discussed progress toward creating the ombudsman position.

“It’s another set of eyes to keep the state honest,” said DHHR Deputy Secretary Jeremiah Samples, who led the meeting.

Interim Inspector General Jolynn Marra said the position would be within the Office of Inspector General, which is part of DHHR but she described it as impartial and operating independently.

She said it had been decided that the position would be a Program Manager 1 position. According to DHHR, that salary range is about $37,000 to $69,000. The person must have been a foster parent or have child welfare experience.

In an email, Allison Adler, DHHR spokeswoman, said that they are working with the Division of Personnel to get the position posted, but estimated it would be within 30 days.

According to DHHR, about 7,000 children were in state custody as of April. More than 5,000 of those were with foster families or relatives, but some were in other types of placements, such as psychiatric facilities or emergency shelter.

According to state law, the ombudsman will track foster child or foster parent complaints “relating to action, inaction or decisions of providers of managed care services, or the representatives of such providers, of public agencies, or of social service agencies, which may adversely affect the health, safety, welfare and rights of the foster child or foster parent.”

The person may also be able to prevent future problems by tracking patterns. The law charges the person with “establishing and maintaining a statewide uniform reporting system to collect and analyze data relating to complaints for the purpose of identifying and resolving significant problems faced by foster children and foster parents as a class.” That data would be reported to DHHR and to lawmakers.

Marra told the group that the Legislature had wanted six positions but set aside funding for no positions.

“However, that has not stopped us with moving forward with the creation of these positions,” Marra said.

DHHR found money for two positions. A secretary will be hired later, she said.

Marra said that DHHR plans to go back to the Legislature and ask for more funding to hire regional representatives, one for four regions of the state. If all goes as hoped, one would cover a region made up of Webster, Pocahontas, Nicholas, Greenbrier, Fayette, Raleigh, Summers, Monroe, Wyoming, Mercer, Mingo and McDowell counties.

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