Senate Finance Committee Chair Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, on March 9, 2022. Photo by Will Price/WV Legislature.

While West Virginia faces crisis-level Child Protective Services staff shortages, lawmakers have decided they won’t fund pay raises this year in an effort to fix the problem.

The raises were originally included in the session’s only foster care bill. Despite overwhelming support for the measure in the House of Delegates, Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee stripped the bill of many of its key components. Committee members and Department of Health and Human Resources leaders went back and forth for two days over money, transparency requirements and how to fix a CPS vacancy problem that has left vulnerable kids in danger. 

The agency faces a 30% CPS vacancy rate and struggles to fill its adult protective services positions, too. In the fall, DHHR reported that multiple counties were missing nearly half of their CPS workforce. DHHR officials had told lawmakers that raises were crucial for attracting and retaining CPS workers. 

Now, with the pay increase stripped from the foster care bill, DHHR officials told lawmakers they’ll try to make the raises happen by taking salaries meant for vacant positions and putting the money toward a 15% raise for CPS workers. 

“It’s our intention to fund these increases … we’ve got to figure out exactly how to do that,” DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch told lawmakers Thursday. 

Without the pay increase, Molly Arbogast, executive director of the West Virginia’s National Association of Social Workers chapter, said the bill would do little to help DHHR recruit and retain CPS workers. The legislation does not address ongoing issues like high caseloads and lack of mental health support for social workers, she said. 

“I don’t see anything in [the bill] to address the core problems that have been talked about this session and for years,” she said.

Long-term concerns about cutting unfilled DHHR positions 

The ongoing lack of CPS workers has been directly tied to the state’s inability to promptly investigate referrals of abuse and neglect, potentially leaving kids in dangerous situations. 

Jeffrey Pack, commissioner of DHHR’s Social Services Bureau, told lawmakers during interim committee meetings last fall that CPS vacancies were at crisis level. Earlier this year, Gov. Jim Justice and House Speaker Roger Hanshaw both noted the employees would be included in the governor’s proposed 5% raise for state workers, and the House’s version of the foster care bill included an additional 15% pay bump for social workers on top of that. 

The bill gained bipartisan support, passing the House 99-1. The Senate Health Committee unanimously approved the measure.

But, in Senate Finance, led by committee Chairman Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, the plan fell apart.

A new version of the bill appeared Wednesday in the committee without the raises and other components that pushed for DHHR transparency.

Then, later that night, Justice sent a letter clarifying that DHHR and other state agencies could offer pay raises by eliminating vacant positions and reallocating the money that was budgeted for them. 

By Thursday, Crouch told lawmakers that he’d handle the 15% pay raises that way. 

“These staff are so important to what we do,” he said. 

The agency’s budget presentation to lawmakers showed 1,400 unfilled positions of the agency’s total 6,400 full-time roles. Crouch said 22% of the agency’s employees are eligible for retirement. 

Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, said he feared that if DHHR eliminated positions, it would be difficult for the agency to fund new CPS positions in the future.

“I have long-term concerns,” he said. 

Crouch told lawmakers he hopes that money saved from eliminated DHHR positions would be used to fund additional CPS workers.

“We want to maintain the number of CPS workers we have, and we want to fill those vacancies,” he said. 

But after the meeting, Crouch told a reporter that he couldn’t say definitively if any unfilled CPS positions would be among those on the chopping block. 

The agency has added 184 CPS positions as the number of kids in foster care has skyrocketed over the last decade. 

Bill gutted as it heads to full Senate 

The stripped-down version of the foster care bill (HB 4344) now only includes changes to how teams working on a foster kids’ case function and report suspected abuse and neglect. And the legislation would further clarify the role of the state’s foster care ombudsman and strengthen the state’s abuse and neglect referral system. 

Along with CPS raises, the original foster care bill required a public website for foster care data, including information about why children were removed from homes and the number of foster care homes per county. Those provisions were removed in Senate Finance.

Marissa Sanders, ​​executive director of the West Virginia Foster Adoptive & Kinship Parents Network, said the revamped bill is unlikely to address ongoing issues impacting foster families and kids.

“It really will have almost no impact at all on the [foster] system,” Sanders said.

The latest version of the foster care bill could still see changes when it goes to the Senate floor, and then back to the House to concur with changes. The Legislature finishes its regular session on  Saturday.

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