DHHR Bureau of Social Services Commissioner Jeff Pack testifies before a legislative interim committee on Nov. 15, 2021. Photo by Perry Bennett/WV Legislature.

The official overseeing West Virginia’s foster care system says the state has removed kids from some out-of-state foster homes identified in a Mountain State Spotlight investigation, but did not provide any details and told lawmakers he still has no proposals for a broader fix for the state’s troubled system.

“I wish there were a statute that could be changed or a bill that could be drafted that would make everything better,” Department of Health and Human Resources Bureau of Social Services Commissioner Jeff Pack told state lawmakers on Tuesday. “But I don’t know what that would be.”

The meeting between Pack and lawmakers followed an investigation by Mountain State Spotlight and the GroundTruth Project, which revealed patterns of abuse and neglect of foster kids in out-of-state residential facilities, and a lack of caseworkers and foster families to care for kids who would otherwise be placed in homes. 

In response to questions from lawmakers about that reporting, Pack said children who were placed in out-of-state facilities with documented cases of abuse and neglect have been returned to West Virginia, but was unable to provide details about where the kids have since been placed. A DHHR spokeswoman did not respond to a request for more information, including the number of children removed and to what types of homes or centers they were sent.

One of the investigation’s findings was also that children had been placed in facilities that DHHR was aware were mistreating kids; Pack said he could not speak to the systemic issues that led the agency to place kids in these centers in the first place. 

Pack started the job one month before the investigation was published, though he had previously served as the head of a House committee that oversees DHHR. The issues highlighted took place largely before he began his new job. 

The commissioner also outlined other steps that DHHR is taking to address issues facing West Virginia’s foster care system, but he said any major change will likely require a significant funding increase from lawmakers. For example, the department is working to change the way it keeps track of data about where kids are being placed and what types of homes are available to them.

West Virginia currently has a higher rate of children per capita in its foster care system than any other state in the country, and shortages in resources and Child Protective Service workers has exacerbated problems faced by children and families in the system.

Pack said a major issue has been caseworker pay and retention. Currently, West Virginia’s Child Protective Services is facing a 27% worker vacancy. A large reason for the vacancies, he said, is the low pay the state is able to provide and the high demand of the job.

“Those types of vacancy rates lead to a caseload that is becoming unmanageable for the workers we do have, which, again, leads to the problem we have with retention,” Pack said.

DHHR has tasked West Virginia University with performing a pay study, comparing the salaries West Virginia pays CPS workers with what those in surrounding states earn, and is expecting the results next month. Pack also said that he is regularly meeting with working groups including representatives of private agencies the state contracts with to place kids with foster families.

Pack also cited a lack of foster families available to take kids with specific medical and behavioral needs. 

But Marissa Sanders, the director of the West Virginia Foster, Adoptive and Kinship Parents network, said that she hears from families regularly who are able to care for kids with special needs, but are not being contacted by DHHR. Instead, kids wind up in residential homes, or shelters that she said should be a last resort.

The issue is representative of a larger one that Sanders raised in an interview: foster parents are frustrated by what they see as a lack of input in DHHR’s decision making.

“Families live this every day,” said Sanders. “They have solutions. They have ideas. They’re often not included.”

Pack was unable to respond to questions from lawmakers about how often DHHR meets with representatives of foster and kinship families to discuss potential solutions to issues in the foster care system.  

“To the extent they do [happen], I don’t know if I’ve been a part of them,” Pack said in response to a lawmaker’s question.

A DHHR spokeswoman did not respond to a follow-up question from Mountain State Spotlight about meetings with foster parents.

Yet, Sanders is hopeful about a recently-formed caucus of lawmakers dedicated to addressing the same issues legislatively, which is co-chaired by Delegate Jonathan Pinson, R-Mason, himself a foster parent, and has sought the input of other foster parents.

At an October meeting, Sanders outlined her advocacy group’s legislative priorities to lawmakers in the child welfare caucus. These included requiring DHHR to keep better track of openings for kids in foster families, and to create a public database with detailed information about kids in the system and the issues they’re facing.

Pack says DHHR is working to modernize the tracking and accessibility of data that will help the department determine the availability of open beds for kids with foster families and in shelters. He said he hopes a new system can be rolled out late next year, but he did not speak to how much of that data would be made publicly available.

Sanders is hopeful there will be legislation introduced by members of the caucus when lawmakers meet for a regular session beginning in January, and she is working with them to shape it.

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