The West Virginia State Capitol. Photo by Bill Dickinson/Flickr.

In West Virginia, child neglect cases are impacted by a lack of resources: a county without a pediatrician, a community without a food pantry, or a school without a free clothing closet, according to Jim McKay.

“There’s a thin line between a family’s neglect of a child and a community’s failure of a family,” said McKay, state coordinator of Prevent Child Abuse West Virginia

That’s why he and other child welfare advocates oppose Senate Bill 387, a bill moving through the West Virginia Legislature that would continue a pilot program that requires people applying for emergency cash assistance be screened for drugs. 

The cash assistance program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, provides short-term financial help for families, including money for food and child care. TANF applicants in West Virginia must have children. Of 6,059 recent TANF recipients, more than 5,000 were children, state Department of Health and Human Resources Jeremiah Samples told lawmakers. 

The drug test barrier to benefits would leave kids vulnerable to neglect and hunger, child welfare advocates argue, because kids would be left without money for food or hygiene items. Advocates said the bill’s unintended results could push more kids into the already overburdened foster care system, which DHHR officials have said will likely see a surge in the fall in the wake of the pandemic’s effect on children’s mental health and families’ economic stability.

“When you create a condition where fewer of these people can access TANF benefits, then that means kids are missing out,” McKay said.

About one in 54 West Virginia kids is known to be abused or neglected, according to the latest 2019 federal data available, but that number only includes reported abuse cases, so the actual number is likely higher.

The majority of those cases are child neglect, according to McKay.

Statewide, one in four children struggle to access enough food, and food pantries have reported a 30% increase in families in need during the COVID-19 pandemic. The West Virginia Food for All Coalition, a group of anti-hunger advocates, also opposes the bill.

Bill sponsor Sen. Mike Maroney, R-Marshall told lawmakers on March 3, “The goal of this legislation is not to limit food to children who need food … who could potentially be affected by the drug use of a parent.”

The legislation, according to Maroney and DHHR, is intended to connect West Virginians with substance abuse treatment. 

Sen. Michael Maroney (R-Marshall) is the lead sponsor of SB 387.

“The bill sets forth criteria for reasonable suspicion of drug use,” Maroney said to lawmakers. “Applicants that have a positive drug test will be referred to substance abuse treatment and job training.”

DHHR has drug-screened TANF applicants since 2017, when the department launched the pilot project after the Legislature mandated it. The state has spent $33,000 on the program since it launched.

From October 2019 to September 2020, DHHR reported that out of 2,067 completed drug use screening questionnaires, only seven people tested positive for drugs.

And since 2017, only one West Virginia resident flagged through the program has successfully completed treatment. 

“[The bill] relies on a false narrative that somehow families in need of TANF are more likely to use illegal drugs than other families, which has not been the case in West Virginia,” McKay said.

The state’s TANF program permits another adult, or proxy, to administer the benefits to the children if the parent fails the drug screening. DHHR has not presented any data to lawmakers about if or how many children have been affected by that provision.

Samples, who did not respond to questions for this story, told lawmakers there are “other goals” for the program beyond drug treatment; he said the TANF screening process has resulted in 91 referrals to Child Protective Services, which DHHR also oversees

But Kelli Caseman, who leads child advocacy nonprofit Think Kids WV, said the overlap in DHHR’s services — emergency assistance programs and child protective services — and bills like SB 387 can ultimately result in parents shying away from reaching out for help for fear of losing their kids.

“[DHHR] wants to be the benevolent place of resources but at the same time the disciplinarian,” Caseman said. “The consequence is that you have people who aren’t going to utilize their services.”

West Virginia has the highest rate of child removals in the country, which DHHR has attributed mostly to the state’s drug crisis. 

Bill up for passage April 7

The Senate passed SB 387 in March. The amended bill, which would extend the drug-testing program through 2026, is up for its final vote in the House on April 7. The amended version would return to the Senate for a vote before it would go to Gov. Jim Justice for his signature.

Multiple amendments in the Senate and House to remove marijuana from the drug testing process have failed. According to DHHR, the majority of positive drug tests were for marijuana.

Delegate Danielle Walker, D-Monongalia, will vote against the measure, which she said would “definitely harm the children of West Virginia.”

“Please stop humiliating poor people,” she said. “We know this program has had no success.”

Delegate Jeffrey Pack, R-Raleigh, who chairs the House Health and Human Resources Committee and introduced SB 387 to the House, declined an interview for this story and did not respond to emailed questions about how the bill would impact West Virginia children.

House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, did not respond to a request for an interview.

Amelia Ferrell Knisely is a Report for America Corps member who covers poverty. A native of Rand in Kanawha County, started her career in her home state then served as editor of The Contributor in Nashville,...