Lawmakers lament loss of foster care bill but say policies can still be done
Lawmakers who have backed bigger raises for social service workers and an online dashboard to provide more detailed information about West Virginia’s foster care system would still like to achieve those goals.
Last month, when delegates overwhelmingly passed a bill with both initiatives, Delegate Jonathan Pinson told his colleagues in the House, “I think this might be one of the most more important that we were looking at all year.”
A lot has changed in a month. Gov. Jim Justice’s administration said the biggest increases for social service workers could be won without a bill, so it was removed from the legislation. And differences in what information the dashboard should display led to their removal. An amended version of House Bill 4344 passed the state Senate, but time ran out on the last day of the session before delegates could approve or reject the changes.
Thus, the bill, despite broad support, never crossed the legislative finish line.
Pinson last week said he hoped the policies could still be implemented even if they were done differently. One such opportunity is to use technology to improve the information available about foster care in West Virginia.
“Hopefully we can continue to integrate technology and data into our DHHR system. I believe that by using technology to our advantage, it will make the agency more efficient and effective,” he said.
“I believe that a communication portal for stakeholders in the foster care system is essential to improving the quality of service we provide to the more than 7,000 children in foster care throughout West Virginia. “
Delegates pushed for bigger pay increases for adult protective services and child protective services workers to encourage retention and recruitment. The increases were to be 15% per employee in addition to the average salary increases of 5% for state employees enacted as part of the general state revenue budget.
The administration of justice, late in the regular session, pledged to provide the raises for existing employees by transferring funds that had been allocated for currently open positions. The Department of Health and Human Resources budget presentation revealed 1,400 vacancies out of the agency’s 6,400 full-time positions.
The governor reiterated that commitment during a briefing last week.
“Through the vacancies that are there, I promise you — I absolutely guarantee you and I promise you — that we will find the sums in terms of the useless type jobs that we have posted and which are vacant. We will find the funds within the DHHR to fund the salary increases,” the judge said.
Pinson said he believed the salary increases would be enacted.
“They were much needed and long overdue. I believe this is very important to help with retention and recruitment efforts within DHHR. I also believe that these pay increases are well deserved for the large number of employees who have remained with the agency throughout these difficult times,” he said.
And he said using vacancy funding to pay for others’ raises could reflect a temporary situation.
“I asked about the use of vacancies to supplement the salary increase for field positions. I was assured that this was only a temporary and immediate solution. I certainly realize that these vacancies will need to be funded in future budgets. I and others are prepared to do this so that our DHHR has the staff it needs to perform the responsibilities we ask it to do,” Pinson said.
A separate bill would split DHHR into two agencies: the Department of Health and the Department of Human Resources, each with its own cabinet secretary.
“I am in favor of splitting DHHR into two separate and distinct agencies,” Pinson said. “I believe that over time the department has become so large that it is unmanageable. I see great benefit in supervisors and employees being able to focus on the areas in which they are most skilled.”
Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, also spoke in favor of the policies during the regular legislative session. Baldwin said he was grateful for the support Justice and DHHR Secretary Crouch has expressed for the raises given to social service workers.
“At the same time, the real problem is all the vacancies,” Baldwin said, referring to the 27% of child protective services positions that remain open statewide.
“If we use the money available from vacancies to augment current workers, do we still have money to fill vacancies? We better. Because the CPS workers I’ve met want manageable workloads more than anything, and the only way to achieve that is to fill vacancies. They simply want to be able to meet the needs of the children in their care.
Baldwin remained upset that the foster care bill did not pass. Baldwin had lobbied to amend the bill to include a requirement to follow up on any call from a medical professional to a child abuse hotline.
This provision was prompted by a tragedy in a community he represents. A 2020 Greenbrier County woman killed five young boys, burned down the family’s home, then took her own life. A few weeks earlier, a dental hygienist had referred a child protection hotline, but her concern apparently went no further.
“I’m ashamed that the foster care bill is dead,” Baldwin said. “How can our leaders say our children are a priority when they can’t pass a single bill on this in 60 days? This issue should be the No. 1 priority of a special session. Our children are counting on us. We need data to hold DHHR accountable and inform policy making. We need to ensure that calls from mandatory reporters to the child abuse hotline reach the CPS. We need to empower the ombudsman to do his job.
His colleague, Senator Richard Lindsay, expressed similar frustrations during an appearance last week on “580 Live” on WCHS Radio.
“It was a big miss, and it’s heartbreaking in so many ways,” said Lindsay, D-Kanawha.
Lindsay said he was confident the biggest increases for social service workers would materialize, but he was troubled that the dashboard to show more information about the foster care system did not not successful.
“The reason it’s good is because you only know what you know, and what you don’t know, you don’t know,” he said. “You can’t solve a problem if you don’t know what the deficits are.”