Leading lawmakers expressed concern this week about serious problems that a Mountain State Spotlight investigation identified at out-of-state facilities used by West Virginia’s foster care system, but offered few answers about what they planned to do about the matter.
The foster care issue was not on the agenda of any relevant committees during the legislative interim session that ran from Sunday through Tuesday. Most of the session focused on redistricting, supplemental budget appropriations and a proposed ban on COVID-19 vaccine mandates without certain exemptions.
One state Department of Health and Human Resources official indicated that the agency is addressing the Mountain State Spotlight findings.
“We’re working to address all of the problems that have been identified in the report to ensure this doesn’t happen again, and retroactively, to look back and see what we could’ve done better,” said Jeffrey Pack, newly appointed commissioner for the Bureau of Social Services.
Pack, a former Raleigh County delegate and the immediate past chair for the House of Delegates Health and Human Resources Committee, declined to comment on children currently out of state. DHHR Cabinet Secretary Bill Crouch declined to comment on most questions about any reviews or changes happening as a result of the Mountain State Spotlight investigation.
“We really can’t comment right now until we move further along and get more information on that,” Crouch said before a presentation on privatizing state-run long-term care facilities Monday. “We just need to be careful in terms of getting accurate information out there.”
Pack’s comments come less than a month following a statement from DHHR that didn’t deny the Mountain State Spotlight findings or concede any problems and proposed solutions.
The Mountain State Spotlight investigation, conducted in partnership with The GroundTruth Project, found 22 serious accounts of abuse and neglect at out-of-state facilities West Virginia has paid to care for its foster kids.
In several cases, DHHR has continued or renewed contracts with the facilities despite its own inspection reports revealing abuse. A comprehensive picture of how DHHR handles such matters was impossible to assemble, largely because the agency withheld some key records and refused to answer detailed questions in interviews or in writing.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say they are grappling with a system that they already knew was in trouble, which is overseen by the state’s largest public agency.
“There are very few areas that bring out the kind of emotional response among the members like this,” said House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay.
Hanshaw’s district includes Calhoun County, where 15-year-old Mason Kendall now lives with his adopted family. Kendall spent several years in four different states for foster care and described the abuse he dealt with in the first of Mountain State Spotlight’s three foster care stories. In one facility, for example, Kendall said an employee gave him a black eye.
“His story, sadly, is not unique,” Hanshaw said. “We’ve actually heard stories like his before.”
Hanshaw said that as a lawmaker, problems with West Virignia’s foster care system have been on his radar since his first year in office in 2015. Since then, the Legislature has passed several foster care bills, but has not focused on conditions in or oversight of out-of-state group homes used by DHHR.
Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, said he hopes lawmakers and DHHR leaders focus more on the issue. Baldwin and Sen. Richard Lindsay, D-Kanawha, wrote both Crouch and Pack a letter requesting many of the records the agency had refused to provide to Mountain State Spotlight in response to the news outlet’s state public records requests.
“I have not sensed in the past that this is a priority with DHHR,” Baldwin said of getting foster care-related information from the agency. “I am hopeful that it is a priority with Commissioner Pack. I’ve served with him, we are sort of from the same region of the state. It was one of the reasons I was excited about him taking this job.”
No lawmaker that Mountain State Spotlight talked to this week could immediately identify legislation they would propose to address issues that the stories identified.
Hanshaw said that as a part-time legislature that only convenes regularly for 60 days a year, they rely on policy recommendations from officials like Crouch and Pack.
Hanshaw said West Virginia is receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in COVID-19 relief funding, and lawmakers would like to know to what extent the pandemic has stressed an already overburdened foster care system. Lawmakers or DHHR could investigate ways such funding could help the state that system.
Baldwin said he also sent a letter to Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, requesting that he reinstate a select committee on children and families that met during the 2020 legislative session.
Blair did appoint Baldwin to a joint, interim committee on the same subject — but the group doesn’t have the same clout as a select committee, which would meet during the regular session and consider and vote on legislation before the full Senate.
Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, co-chairs the interim committee on Children and Families. She said that DHHR is still working to implement foster care bills from 2019 and 2020. Rucker said she would like to give those laws time, and that most legislation isn’t written overnight.
“A bill, any bill, is not going to immediately fix families,” Rucker said. “It’s not going to stop addiction or abuse. … There is no one fix that we could do. Boy, I wish there was, but that’s not really practical.”
House Majority Leader Amy Summers, R-Taylor, said the issue is more complicated than simply regulating DHHR, because there are more parties involved — sometimes, Summers said, it’s a judge that orders a child in the state’s custody be sent away.
“I mean, it would be wonderful if we could figure all this out overnight, but we can’t,” Summers said.
To members of the minority, the issue doesn’t seem like it’s being prioritized enough. Del. Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, is the minority chair for the House Health Committee. He said that he asked committee Chair Matthew Rohrbach, R-Cabell, to schedule a presentation from DHHR officials on foster care for the October meetings.
“I have some questions and I wanted to ask them on the record during a committee meeting,” Pushkin said. “I think the prospective chairs of the House and Senate committee disagree and they chose not to [do that] with our time. I don’t think anything else could be more important.”
Rohrbach said, “You can’t do everything each meeting … you’ve got to prioritize.”
Statehouse reporter Ian Karbal contributed to this report.