Workforce shortages in the child welfare system continue to impact children and families

CHARLESTON, WV (WVDN) – Labor shortages in West Virginia’s child welfare system continue to impact children and families across the state.

Jeffrey Pack, commissioner of DHHR’s Office of Human Services, told members of the Joint Legislative Committee on Children and Families at their interim meeting on Tuesday that current child protection labor shortages “hover” around 30%.

“We’ve talked a lot about this, nauseatingly, but it just bears repeating here that we are facing a high level of labor shortages in child protection positions,” Pack said. , noting that in 2018, it took about $28,000 to recruit and train. a new employee.

“That number could only have increased over those four years,” he added. “So there’s a drain on resources for us recruiting people and we can’t retain them.”

As of July 31, there were 151 child protective services worker positions available across the state, according to data provided by Pack. He explained that the Bureau of Social Services (BSS) has implemented salary increases, mentoring, staff surveys and more to retain and recruit employees.

These shortages “have always been the root cause of underperformance against CSFR (Child and Family Services Reviews) results,” he said.

Additionally, during his presentation, Pack provided data on state referrals for child abuse and neglect and foster care placements.

According to Pack, the “first point of contact” for child abuse and neglect referrals comes from the centralized helpline.

In 2021, centralized admission received 36,697 referrals, Pack said. “Of these, 23,280 (63%) were pre-selected for assessment and investigated.

The next step, once a pre-screened referral for child abuse and neglect has been made, is to “conduct an assessment on the family to determine if abuse or neglect has occurred,” Pack continued.

The 2021 data shows that 10,418 assessments were considered “false positives,” 6,787 were “true negatives,” 5,239 were “true positives,” and 147 were “false negatives,” Pack said. Data continues to show that 138 of every 1,000 children living in the state will be selected for referral at some point.

“That’s significantly higher than the national average which is just 40,” Pack said.

He added that “the focus of child protection services has shifted towards preventing the removal of children from their homes and preventing abuse and neglect” after the passage of the Child Protection Act 2018. family-first prevention services. “As a result, the BSS has been working to refocus its prevention and home care providers, services and staff where it can be done safely.

Where this cannot be done safely, children will be placed in “State custody”, i.e. foster care.

As of July 1, there were 6,619 children in foster care in West Virginia, Pack said, with children ages 13 to 17 accounting for the highest rates at 29.54%.

“West Virginia has the highest rate of foster child inflow of any state in the country,” Pack said. “We are significantly higher.”

The good news, Pack continued, is that West Virginia has high rates of “family care.” This means that children are placed with someone they already know.

“It could be grandparents, aunt, uncle, brothers, sisters, it could also be a teacher or someone from the church – someone the child is familiar with and who they already has a relationship,” Pack said, adding, “West Virginia has the highest rate of kinship care of any state.

As of August 2022, more than half of children in foster care in West Virginia were in “child care”. The remaining 3,030 children were in other placements such as therapeutic foster homes, residential group care facilities and emergency shelters, Pack noted.

Some children are placed in out-of-state care, although the BSS has worked “very diligently to reduce the number of children placed in out-of-state facilities,” Pack said.

As of August 31, 355 children were in out-of-state residential treatment facilities. That number was reduced from 458 children who were in out-of-state care in 2019, he said.

“Often we don’t have the mental health infrastructure to provide the proper treatment for these kids in West Virginia, and we’re forced to seek out-of-state facilities,” Pack said, noting that in some cases, children find out about -state placement with family members.

“For every child in foster care, permanency is the goal,” Pack added. “Permanence can mean reunification with parents. Permanence can mean guardianship. Permanence can mean adoption, so permanence is the goal, whatever that is.

In West Virginia, 52% of children who enter foster care will achieve permanency within 12 months, Pack said. This is above the national percentage of about 40%.

“We’re in the top 10,” Pack said of the permanence ratings.

However, “the longer a child remains in care without achieving permanency, the more difficult it is to achieve permanency,” he added. “So if a child has been in state custody for two years, which is a long time, their chances of finding a forever family are significantly reduced.”

In response to questions from Del. Danielle Walker, D-Monongalia, on the number of state-detained children currently sleeping in hotels, Park estimated that around 2 to 4 are currently in this situation, adding that this is usually due to not unable to find immediate placement in emergency shelters or other locations.

Of the. Walker also asked if the opening of the new crisis center in Elkins “will fit into the design of the residential care commitment in the DOJ’s agreement to reduce residential care.”

Pack replied that it would not be a treatment center but “a safe place to deal with children in emergency situations so that we have the opportunity to do appropriate assessment of children and to determine what is necessary for their best interests and care.

Additionally, responding to a question posed by Sen. Rollan Roberts, R-Raleigh, Pack said services are available for families caring for adult children with disabilities, such as autism spectrum disorder.

During the meeting, Cindy Largent Hill, Director of the Division of Child and Youth Services, spoke to committee members about the shortage of registered attorneys who can be appointed as guardians ad litem in child abuse cases. and child neglect.

According to Hill, 262 registered lawyers have completed the necessary training to become guardian ad litem.

In 2021 alone, 5,876 new abuse and neglect claims were filed in the state, Hill said.

“You can imagine that’s a significant number of children being taken care of,” she continued. “This increase in petitions means an increase in court hearings and an increase in MDTs (multidisciplinary teams).

She explained that judges spend at least one day a week hearing abuse and neglect cases. Additionally, there are “Geographic Challenges” present in multiple counties.

“Children are placed all over our state and unfortunately due to the infrastructure, sibling groups are often separated,” she said. “These present many challenges for a single day of the work week for a tutor ad litem to fulfill their responsibilities.”

“As you know, and as you’ve heard, we have an infrastructure challenge in our system of abuse and neglect — it’s basically with every stakeholder in the system,” she continued. “We are severely understaffed for every person who works with these children.”

She said her division is currently working on recruiting lawyers to become guardians ad litem.
“Everything we get, we’re grateful to have,” she concluded.

Michael A. Bynum