Buckhannon, W.Va. - February 24th, 2021- A NECCO billboard outside of Buckhannon on U.S. Route 48. Necco is a multi-state child welfare organization and works in West Virginia in foster care and adoption as well as mental health counseling, independent living and residential living. This billboard is one of many throughout the state as part of a campaign to recruit more families to become part of the foster care system.

Advocates for foster children and families are proposing concrete policy ideas to address ongoing issues in West Virginia’s overburdened system. Many issues they hope to address were revealed in a Mountain State Spotlight/GroundTruth Project investigation published last month. 

West Virginia has more children per capita in its foster care system than any other state, and their needs are urgent. The investigation found that foster families were not receiving necessary support from the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, and that a shortage of both foster families and DHHR caseworkers sometimes landed kids in residential facilities — some of which had documented and persistent issues of abuse and neglect.

In response, lawmakers have formed a bipartisan caucus to focus on these issues. But in spite of the recognized need for urgency, they haven’t committed to any individual policy, or a timeline to enact  them.

On Wednesday, the WV Foster, Adoptive and Kinship Parents Network provided the policy recommendations to roughly a dozen lawmakers in a virtual town hall. In attendance were also foster parents who spoke about their experiences to underline the proposals’ importance.

One proposed policy would require DHHR, which oversees the foster care system, to track and publicize more detailed data about the children in their care, as well as the families available to take care of them. Currently, DHHR’s dashboard tracks the number of West Virginia kids in foster care, but not about the families available to take care of them.

Aimee Goddard is involved in multiple facets of the foster care system; she’s a foster parent, a attorney working with foster families, and runs a foster closet in Bridgeport that supplies mostly donated items, like car seats, hygiene products, cribs and bedding, to foster families.

She hears regularly about foster parents willing to take care of children from specific  situations — teens or newborns, kids with behavioral or medical needs — but who say that no one is reaching out to them to match them with kids in need. 

“We see all the time that there are open homes, and yet we hear all the time that there are no open homes,” she said

Goddard’s experience illustrates the need for DHHR to track more meaningful data about children in the foster care system, particularly in instances where foster kids need specialized care. The WV Foster, Adoptive and  Kinship Parents Network is proposing DHHR create a virtual dashboard that would include not-currently-public data like how long children tend to stay in the foster care system, what conditions or reasons for entering are associated with that length of stay, how far kids are from their homes, their reasons for release, and more. A second database kept internally at DHHR, they say, should track the number of certified foster families serving at any given time, what kinds of kids those families are able to serve, and how many kids they’re available to take.

Marissa Sanders, the advocacy group’s founder, said that the public database would provide invaluable data to lawmakers, advocates and researchers looking to alleviate burden on the state’s foster care system and address the underlying circumstances that lead to abuse, neglect, and kids entering the system in the first place. The database of potential foster families could also make it easier to match kids with foster families and reduce the number who wind up in residential facilities. 

“It’s much better for kids to be in homes versus residential facilities,” Sanders said.

This information would also help flag staffing issues around the state, said Delegate Lisa Zukoff, D-Marshall, who attended the town hall. 

But creation of the databases would be expensive and require funding from legislators. It would also likely require the participation of private foster care agencies that contract with the state to place children with foster families.

Other policy recommendations proposed by the network included the creation of a Family Leadership Council made up of birth parents, adoptive parents and foster parents. As proposed, the group would report to DHHR, but remain independent of them, and provide policy recommendations based on the experiences of families in the system. 

They’re also suggesting lawmakers create a peer support group that would partner new foster parents with an experienced mentor. Both the Mountain State Spotlight/GroundTruth investigation and previous surveys have found that some foster families report a lack of support from caseworkers; such a network would help to fill that gap as well as provide foster parents with an outlet to share concerns they might not otherwise feel comfortable relaying.

Sanders said that the policy would require funding for mentors to be paid. 

“Foster parents are some of the busiest people in the world,” she said. “To ask people to volunteer their time is not sustainable.”

Roughly a dozen legislators  attended the virtual town hall to listen to the policy recommendations, including Zukoff and Delegate Jonathan Pinson, R-Mason, a foster parent himself. The two recently co-founded the Legislature’s child welfare caucus, where the goal is to push reform that will serve foster children and families. They will hold their first meeting during the November interim committee meetings. 

“Processes within DHHR themselves make this system very difficult for everyone,” Zukoff said at the meeting. Addressing these issues, as well as the underlying circumstances that lead to children being placed in foster care in such high numbers, are the primary goals of Zukoff and Pinson’s caucus.

DHHR spokeswoman Jessica Holstein said that, so far, “the child welfare caucus has not reached out to DHHR. DHHR is always willing to work with the legislative branch.” However, Zukoff said that she has spoken to them independently, and as the minority chair of the House of Delegates Senior, Children and Family Issues Committee.

Despite the urgency of the issue, in a later interview, Zukoff tempered expectations of seeing any policy changes enacted soon. 

“The outcome of all of these caucuses is to understand the issues and not to put forth relevant policy items into legislation,” she said, with a goal of bringing legislation down the line.  But she noted that Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, expressed interest in passing legislation to address issues in the foster care system as soon as the 2022 regular session following Mountain State Spotlight’s reporting. The session begins in January. 

Correction: This story has been updated to accurately describe Aimee Goddard’s profession and place of business.

Ian Karbal is a Report for America corps member, and the state government watchdog reporter for Mountain State Spotlight.