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Lawmakers want to give foster children and families a "bill of rights"

Register-Herald - 1/9/2020

Jan. 8--Charleston -- A group of lawmakers wants to establish a "bill of rights" for foster children and parents in West Virginia, although the state's foster care ombudsman, who would be charged with enforcing the proposed law, conceded it may be difficult to carry that task out all by herself.

As part of a bill last year involving foster care, lawmakers also created a foster care ombudsman position within the state Office of the Inspector General who receives and investigates complaints from foster families about the system.

Monday, during interim legislative meetings, lawmakers in the joint Health Committee, made up of members of both the House of Delegates and state Senate, recommended a bill to the rest of the Legislature that would create a "Foster Children's Bill of Rights." The legislative session begins Wednesday.

Among other rights, foster children would be entitled to: be free from abuse; receive adequate food, clothing and a travel bag; receive medical care; visit brothers and sisters; communicate privately with family members; contact the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources about violations of their rights; make private calls and send private mail; attend religious services of their choice; establish a bank account; not be locked in any room or facility; work and participate in extracurricular activities; have private storage space; be free from unreasonable searches of their belongings; speak to a judge and attend court hearings; and be informed of the reason they were placed in foster care.

The bill also would create a "Foster Parents' and Kinship Bill of Rights," which, among other rights, would state that foster parents and relatives caring for children in custody of the state have the right to: receive training; receive assistance when dealing with loss and separation from a child; receive child care at no cost while attending training or events required by the child placement agency or DHHR; receive their financial reimbursement on or before the 15th of the month; be notified of any issues that could create safety problems before a child is placed in their home; refuse placement; participate in case planning with DHHR; provide input concerning the child's plan of services; be considered as a permanent parent for a foster child; be provided a fair and timely investigation of complaints; have an advocate present during investigations of complaints; and receive a minimum of 14 days of respite each year.

The bill does not give foster families and children a cause of action for a lawsuit if the bill of rights is violated. The state's foster care ombudsman would be in charge of making sure those rights aren't violated.

"I think that it's a good step in the right direction .... I think it's great to give foster parents rights, because they really don't have any right now, and children in foster care," said Marissa Sanders, who heads the WV Foster, Adoptive & Kinship Parents Network.

"This certainly will help with retention, and if we can help with retention, we can help with recruitment, because people who leave the system because they're frustrated tell everybody they know that they're frustrated, and those people say, 'Well, I was thinking about foster care, being a foster parent, but never mind' when they hear those stories."

She also, however, would like to see a group of foster parents appointed to give input to the state. She said one was appointed last year, but it's focused on their health insurance.

"Foster parents are desperate to be heard, to have a voice, to be part of the policy-making process, to be part of the decision-making in terms of how this system looks," she said.

Pamela Woodman-Kaehler, who took the foster care ombudsman position in October 2019, said she is already being inundated with complaints, even though DHHR hasn't yet set up a formal system for receiving and categorizing them.

She said "it would be premature for me to be able to respond with certainty about how we would handle an overwhelming number of complaints, except to say that we would triage them, handle them as best we can and give all of our callers good, reliable information on what they can expect from us from the standpoint of response and response time."

The goal is to eventually have a database, so that systemic problems can be observed, according to Woodman-Kaehler. They also hope to expand staffing. She also said ultimately she hopes to receive complaints through a web form, an email and a toll-free number.

She conceded that it may be difficult for one person to handle the volume of complaints.

DHHR officials have said the state has the highest per capita rate of children in state custody in the country. According to DHHR, as of December 2019, 7,034 children were in state custody. DHHR officials have said that the number has increased by 67 percent since 2013. During that time, the number increased nationally by 11 percent, according to DHHR.

But Woodman-Kaehler, who is a foster parent, has adopted eight foster children, and worked as a CPS worker for four years, said she believes her office will still have "considerable" power to handle the complaints, because it falls under the Office of Inspector General. While that office falls within DHHR, she said she answers to the state inspector general, not to DHHR Cabinet Secretary Bill Crouch.

She said the "power and strength of the ombudsman's office is that it is fully independent, that it is impartial and neutral (and) that it is completely confidential" and that she can make "strong findings and recommendations that we can publicize."

"That is a considerable amount of influence to bear upon a system, not just at an individual level but on a systemic level, and we fully intend to use that," she said.

DHHR Deputy Secretary Jeremiah Samples said DHHR is requesting around $500,000 for her office this year, which could lead to more staffing.

Lawmakers also want to pass legislation that more specifically outlines the duties of her position. According to draft legislation, her duties would include establishing a process for receiving, investigating and resolving complaints, reviewing those complaints and making recommendations, providing assistance to foster children and families, making recommendations to the Legislature, promoting her services to the public, and obtaining assistance from other state agencies when needed.

The draft legislation also gives her the ability to visit foster homes unannounced to investigate complaints, after first identifying herself as the foster care ombudsman. Foster families and children can deny her access, but she can seek a warrant, the draft bill says.

The legislation also gives her access to children and family records, as well as "the records of any state government agency reasonably necessary" for an investigation.

The legislation states that information related to investigations of complaints of foster children or foster parents shall remain confidential unless requested in writing by the complainant, foster child or foster parent or guardian, committee, attorney in fact, or representative of the foster child or foster parent. Courts may also order release of the records.

The Bureau of Children and Families and the Office of Health Facility Licensure and Certification may also seek the records "to determine the appropriateness of initiating an investigation."

The legislation also states that people who willfully interfere with her investigations may be guilty of a misdemeanor.

Lawmakers also recommended draft legislation allowing child protective caseworkers to file grievances with the state Public Employees Grievance Board when DHHR assigns them oversight over more than 25 children. In 1993, the Child Welfare League of America recommended 12-15 cases per worker.

Lawmakers also want DHHR's Bureau for Children and Families to create a team of five to 10 CPS caseworkers who "shall specialize in bringing children back to West Virginia who are in residential treatment facilities out of state."

"The caseworkers shall evaluate the children with longest length of stay and develop a case plan to transition them to foster homes or kinship placement," the draft legislation states.

According to DHHR, of the 7,034 children in state custody, 442 have been sent out of state.

Email: ebeck@register-herald.com and follow on Twitter @3littleredbones

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