The West Virginia Senate convenes on July 26 for a special session. Photo by Will Price/WV Legislature.

On the first day of last month’s special legislative session, a group of West Virginia lawmakers hastily convened in a committee room before a standing room-only audience to debate what exemptions should exist in their proposed abortion ban. But across the Capitol, another committee got to work on a companion bill, with little audience and none of the fanfare.

This bill, dubbed the “family planning bill”, sponsored by the members of the Senate Finance Committee, was intended to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies and to offer some support to new and adoptive families. A bipartisan effort, it aimed to dramatically expand access to contraceptives to lower the rate of unplanned pregnancies, alleviate some burden on an overflowing foster care system and encourage people to adopt with a generous new tax credit.

The bill passed the House of Delegates  but eventually stalled, along with the abortion ban. But it’s likely to reemerge, and despite lawmakers’ talking points, the latest version will do little to help children once they’re born. Moreover, it nearly passed with an apparent error that would have effectively eliminated the adoptive tax credit for parents who adopt from the foster care system.

According to advocates like Stacie Dei, director of the Marshall County Family Resource Network, this is indicative of a Legislature that doesn’t spend enough time listening to their neediest constituents.

“For somebody who does do work on the ground with families … we’re never really part of these problem-solving conversations or conversations about unintended outcomes,” Dei said. “I don’t think [lawmakers are] really having conversations about what those families really need. They’re just making decisions based on what they think they need.”

With the Legislature set to come back and finish their session at some point, the currently proposed bill will do little to help improve the health of West Virginia children and families. West Virginians fall behind those in most other states in educational attainment and access to health care; the state ranks near the top for the number of people experiencing food insecurity, maternal and infant mortality, childhood poverty, babies born addicted to drugs and the number of children per capita in foster care. 

“We’ve got to talk about, ‘How do we catch kids from falling through the cracks,’” said Kelli Caseman, executive director of Think Kids, a nonprofit dedicated to improving child welfare in West Virginia. “We should have had those conversations before we started talking about abortion.”

Senate Majority Leader Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, said keeping children from falling through the cracks was never the primary intention of the legislation. Instead, the proposed bill seeks to lower the number of unwanted pregnancies, and ease the financial burden on pregnant people and adoptive families. 

But child welfare advocates are concerned that missing from the conversation are the children with long-term needs who may be born because abortions are unattainable. Studies have shown that women denied abortion care are more likely to end up in poverty, and their children more likely to wind up with less money than their peers. This could burden the state’s already-strained social safety nets, or in the worst case scenario, the state’s overflowing foster care system. 

And while lawmakers’ companion bill was, on its face, meant to help incentivize adoption, the bill in its current form would take away one of the strongest financial incentives for West Virginians adopting kids out of foster care. 

The bill increases the state’s adoption tax credit for families from $4,000 to $5,000. But by restricting the tax credit to apply only to “qualified expenses” — largely, procedural and legal fees associated with the adoption process — the bill would effectively take away the $4,000 tax credit currently afforded most families who adopt kids from the foster care system. 

“[Almost] anyone adopting from foster care has no adoption expenses, so they will not get a tax credit under this bill,” said Marissa Sanders, an adoptive parent and the founder of the West Virginia Foster, Adoptive and Kinship Parents Network. 

The original bill passed the Senate unanimously. Senate spokesperson Jacque Bland said the stripping of the foster care adoption tax credit was an unintended consequence. “Once they get that hashed out, that can easily be fixed,” she said. 

But even after a fiscal note on the bill highlighted the change for families with low qualifying expenses, the House passed an amended version of the bill with the exact same issue. 

House Finance Chairman Eric Householder, R-Berkeley, the sponsor of the amendment that formed the basis of the House’s version, didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

Without accounting for any potential costs tied to increased welfare program demand, the bill in its current state will cost an estimated $5.7 million a year, according to Bland.

Of that, $1 million annually is to fund pregnancy health centers, which the bill defines vaguely and, proponents conceded, could include “crisis pregnancy centers.” These centers are controversial and often faith-based nonprofits that have been known to spread medical misinformation, sometimes without employing a single doctor.

Some of the $5.7 million would also go to the expanded adoption tax credit, as well as an expanded child tax credit that would allow people to claim the deduction while pregnant.

Even as an adoption advocate, Sanders worries about what this focus on adoption as an alternative to abortion may mean for kids, as opposed to building up programs that could help new families access or afford essential services.

“Adoption should never be construed as a solution [to an abortion ban], because it causes trauma for kids,” Sanders said. “Always. Even in the best circumstance.”

Other funding would go to the state Department of Health and Human Resources to develop a program to offer both hormonal (like birth control pills) and non-hormonal (like certain IUDs) contraceptives at local health departments free of charge to anyone without insurance. Following a House amendment, however, unemancipated minors would need their guardians’ consent.

Dei applauds the initiative, but is concerned with whether the logistics will significantly increase access. 

“In the work that I’ve done previously, particularly around teens, making family planning services available was sometimes really challenging,” Dei said.

She cited the hours of local health clinics compared to school or work hours, access to transportation, and distance from a provider as some of the factors that could complicate the program’s implementation.

Though the family planning bill neared passage, it stalled along with the abortion ban when lawmakers adjourned from the special session, unable to agree on what exceptions the abortion ban should be, and whether there should be criminal penalties for doctors who perform them.

According to Takubo, the bill is very much still being considered, and it has already garnered bipartisan support. It passed the Senate unanimously, and only had one dissenting vote in the House. 

Correction: On Aug. 19, 2002, this story was been corrected to remove references to a lack of consultations with Marissa Sanders over the legislation.

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