West Virginia’s children are in crisis, and that spells a future in crisis for our state. There’s no simpler way to put it. Recent reports from the state Department of Health and Human Resources are dire and demand immediate attention and action. More children have been placed in foster care in this state than any other state in the nation per capita. In raw numbers, there are roughly 7,000 children under the age of 18 living in foster or kinship homes. These numbers have risen 67 percent since 2013 in contrast to the national trend of 11 percent. This, of course, is directly proportional to the devastation the opioid epidemic that has ravaged across our state.
Unfortunately, the child welfare system meant to support these thousands of children is egregiously underfunded and overburdened. Cases go uninvestigated and children entering the system bring more complex and challenging issues with them due to the lag in screening and intervention services. Thus, the placement of older children and teens in homes is an exceptional challenge for DHHR. This is exacerbated by insufficient support available for foster families. Adequate mental health and legal resources are not available to foster and kinship families, and fears around the ability to manage the behavioral and emotional challenges that arise for these often traumatized children keep many families from considering fostering.
Another effect of the delay in identifying children in crisis is a rise in older children running away from state care. Teens are often placed in shelters instead of with a family. At the time of the report presented in September, there were 72 active runaway cases. Some of those children will age out of state care in the interim and become, quite literally, the lost children. Those children are statistically likely to show up in the prison system or homeless population. In most cases, we won’t know for sure what happens to them.
But, it does no good to stand in the rain and say it’s raining. The West Virginia legislature can do something. No, the legislature must do something. We must invest real dollars in the rehabilitation of DHHR and the support systems available to children and families in state programs. DHHR needs the resources to adequately investigate and intervene when a child needs to be removed from a home. We must rescue children earlier to avoid the long-term effect of neglect and trauma. This means hiring more caseworkers and increasing salaries commensurate with the important work we are asking of them. We must also ensure that foster and kinship families have access to attorneys and mental health professionals, and supportive networks.
I am honored to serve on a bipartisan joint subcommittee formed by Senator Patricia Rucker (R-Jefferson) and co-chaired by Delegate Ruth Rowan (R-Hampshire) to address the foster care crisis. As a mother and teacher, I am compelled to focus on the children of West Virginia.
As a first step, I am working with CASA directors to find state and local funding to support these programs statewide. Court-appointed special advocate (CASA) volunteers advocate on behalf of children who have experienced abuse or neglect. CASA volunteers are appointed by judges to advocate for children’s best interests. They stay with each case until it is closed and the child is in a safe, permanent home. Many times, these volunteers are the only constant adult present in the child’s life during their time in state custody.
CASA volunteers work with legal and child welfare professionals, educators and service providers to ensure that judges have all the information they need to make the most well-informed decisions for each child. The goal is a world where every child who has experienced abuse or neglect is given the opportunity to thrive in a safe and loving home.
How we respond to this crisis will be our state’s legacy for the next generation or longer, and we will be called to answer for our inaction. Please join us in our efforts.
To volunteer with CASA, you can visit https://casaforchildren.org/our-work/programs/ or call 304-645-5437.
Cindy Lavender-Bowe is a Democrat member of the House of Delegates from Greenbrier County.