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WV Legislature Makes Progress on Kids, Family Issues

PHOTO: The Our Children, Our Future campaign says the Legislature made progress on kids and family issues again this year, despite partisan battles in other areas. Photo courtesy Our Children, Our Future.
PHOTO: The Our Children, Our Future campaign says the Legislature made progress on kids and family issues again this year, despite partisan battles in other areas. Photo courtesy Our Children, Our Future.
March 16, 2015

CHARLESTON, W. Va. - The legislative session that just ended was marked by a number of sharp partisan battles. But the child poverty-fighting group "Our Children Our Future" says that didn't stop progress on issues that affect kids and families.

Lawmakers voted to reform West Virginia's juvenile justice system and truancy rules. They also agreed to look for ways to prevent child sexual abuse. Stephen Smith, director with the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition, says his group is glad to see the bipartisan support.

"There's an island of priorities that everybody agrees on and we see our job as trying to expand that island and make sure the Legislature spends as much time on that island as possible," says Smith.

According to the group, this year's successes are the latest in a series of bipartisan legislative victories in the last three years.

One of Governor Earl Ray Tomblin's top priorities for the session was reforming juvenile justice, and the Republican-led Legislature passed the Democratic governor's bill (Senate Bill 393). Smith says it should slow a process down that feeds kids into the juvenile justice system, where he says they get chewed up and, all too often, end up in prison.

"It is now horrifyingly obvious that West Virginia is locking up way too many kid, and spending way too much money on it," Smith says. "When we keep kids close to home, and in their schools and in their communities, it's a whole lot cheaper, a whole lot more humane and a whole lot more effective."

Lawmakers also voted to ease truancy rules that many say are too quick to put kids in legal trouble. Smith says under the current system, a student could end up in court for as few as five unexcused absences and by that measure, as many as one-third of West Virginia students could be declared truant. So, he says, lawmakers voted to loosen that rule (House Bill 2550).

"After three unexcused absences, the kid and their family are starting to receive notices," says Smith. "But it's not until ten unexcused absences that they're going before a judge, as a sort of a last resort."

Smith says Tomblin may still veto the truancy bill. Another bill on the governor's desk was named for Erin Marryn (House Bill 2527). It would set up a task force to study ways to reduce child sexual abuse, and is more likely to be signed.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV