Foster care, substance abuse top priorities for WV state government

CHARLESTON — Drug overdose deaths are decreasing and work is ongoing to reunite children in the foster care system with their families, but lawmakers and state health officials say more will be done to curb substance abuse and the further growth of the foster care system in 2020.

Members of the media heard from a panel of experts Friday during the West Virginia Press Association’s annual Legislative Lookahead at the Cultural Center in Charleston.

Bill Crouch, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Resources, said the state will defend itself rigorously against a class action lawsuit brought by child welfare advocates Sept. 30 alleging that DHHR isn’t doing enough to protect foster children from abuse and neglect. The state filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit in November 2019.

“We truly don’t think this law firm has a role in our child welfare system, and we’re hopeful that it’s dismissed,” Crouch said. “This law firm didn’t come into West Virginia. They didn’t talk to me. They didn’t contact our leadership. They didn’t contact the commissioner of the Bureau of Children and Families. They came into the state to fund clients.”

Crouch said that DHHR has struggled with the growth in foster care placements. Since 2011, the rate of foster care placements has grown by 70 percent, from 4,129 placements in September 2011 to 7,034 placements by the end of December 2019. According to a legislative audit, Child Protective Services has struggled to meet statutory timeframes for investigating abuse and neglect cases due to the number of cases and high employee turnover.

DHHR is working on these issues by finding partners. The state settled a 2015 complaint by the U.S. Department of Justice regarding DHHR’s treatment of foster children with intellectual and developmental disabilities and are now actively working with the DOJ. A new managed care contract between DHHR and Aetna Better Health will manage medical and behavioral health services for foster children.

A series of pay raises over the last two years allowed DHHR to bring on 60 new CPS workers last year, with another 80 workers expected to be hired in 2020. Pay raises for CPS workers has increased by 20 percent since 2017, and the new positions are coming from the elimination of other unfilled positions within DHHR. Crouch said his office is also working to help decrease the amount of employee turnover.

“It is very hard for some individuals who do this, so turnover is high. Some can’t do it at all,” Crouch said. “We’re looking at a way to select better on the front end, either an analysis program or personality program to get a better selection on the front end. We’re looking at monitoring this.”

Del. Matthew Rohrbach, R-Cabell, is chairman of the House Select Committee on Prevention and Treatment of Substance Abuse and a doctor. He said much of the growth in foster care placements is due to the state’s substance abuse program. He believes if the state can continue to make progress in curbing substance abuse and combined with job training in high-need fields, it will help reunite foster children with their families.

“To make headway on the foster care part of the this, an integral part is going to be we have to get families back together and functional,” Rohrbach said. “We’ve got to get people back to work in this state and make it possible for them to work. People can be rehabilitated, but you have to get them back in the workforce once they’re rehabilitated.”

Another program expected to help the foster program is called Family First, which redirects federal funding to services to help keep children with their families, including mental health and substance abuse treatment for parents.

According to DHHR data released in September 2019, the state was on track to see the first drop in drug overdose deaths since actively tracking the deaths, with an estimated 952 deaths for 2018. The state saw high numbers of overdoses tied to prescription pain medications and illegal heroin use. But methamphetamine is beginning to make a comeback, with 36 percent of overdose deaths tied to meth in 2018.

State Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, is …

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