As state legislators, we are often asked what can be done to stop people from leaving West Virginia, to keep our best and brightest at home. We hear about it on the news, in the grocery store, and in our church pews – people are leaving West Virginia at an alarming rate and they are not coming back.
As Democrats, we believe that to stop this exodus we must do a better job of taking care of the ones that still call West Virginia home, especially the most vulnerable among us, our children.
More children have been placed in foster care in West Virginia than in any other state, per capita. More than 6,500 kids are in foster or kinship care, according to the Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR). Twenty-five percent of our kids live in poverty. More than 10,000 students in West Virginia are homeless. For every 1,000 live births, 50 babies are born with neonatal abstinence syndrome.
The numbers are staggering, tragic and unacceptable. Yet Republican legislative leadership continually prioritizes corporations and tax cuts over West Virginians. We must learn that our future depends on how we care today for our children and families.
Recently, Dr. Jeffrey Coben, M.D., Dean of the School of Public Health at West Virginia University, addressed our Public Health Caucus. He said that a child’s Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) score is “more important than your cholesterol or blood pressure.” ACEs can include poverty, substance abuse, parental separation and neglect. Dr. Coben urged a multi-pronged approach that prevents future trauma, while caring for our traumatized children.
West Virginia should follow the lead of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to make prevention and treatment of ACEs our priority. ACEs impact brain development of small children and have lifelong health effects. Research shows ACEs can negatively impact education, employment and earning potential. Early screening for ACEs is important to determine if treatment for trauma is needed and to help our children learn positive coping mechanisms.
Six years ago, at the Greenbrier Valley Medical Center, 20 percent of babies born were dependent on substances. Today, it is down to 5 percent. The difference is the Drug Free Mothers and Babies program, which provides a social worker to perform drug screens, counseling and support for expectant mothers. By expanding the program, we can reduce the number of infants born dependent on drugs, which will reduce trauma, healthcare costs and help save a generation of children from addiction.
To support our foster children, we must increase accountability and resources for kids, families and the DHHR. A bipartisan effort, House Bill 4092, establishes a bill of rights for foster children, including adequate food, medical care, clothing and a travel bag, as well as a chance to participate in community activities important to childhood development.
The bill of rights creates a confidential database to streamline child placement and make important information including medical needs, more accessible. It increases and equalizes pay for foster and kinship families to support the children in their care.
Foster and kinship parents have vital information that is often not heard. This bill helps them to have a voice when it comes to decisions about their children. The legislation requires that guardian ad litem at-home visits be thorough and collaborative with parents.
Trying to manage this extraordinary crisis is the DHHR, which is underfunded and stretched beyond capacity. To care for the thousands of children in state custody, to investigate and act when children are unsafe, the DHHR needs more funding, more case workers and decent salaries. The bill of rights in HB 4092 helps provide for those needs.
To reduce ACEs and put our children first, the West Virginia Legislature needs to increase economic security for vulnerable children and families. More than 400,000 West Virginians would qualify for a state-level earned income tax credit. Paid family leave would ensure no West Virginian has to choose between caring for a family member and working to support their family.
We, as legislators and as a state, have to make a decision: Do we act on proven methods to put West Virginia children and families first, or do we continue down the same path of patchwork fixes and well-wishes? Our future will reflect the seeds we sow.
Senator Stephen Baldwin, of Ronceverte, is a West Virginia State Senator representing the 10th District.
Delegate Amanda Estep-Burton, of Charleston, is a member of the West Virginia House of Delegates representing the 36th District.
Delegate Lisa Zukoff, of Moundsville, is a member of the West Virginia House of Delegates representing the 4th District.