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Driven by Drug Crisis, WV DHHR Plans Child-Welfare Reforms

State officials say West Virginia needs to increase support for families before they end up in crisis. (Bess-Hamiti/Pixabay)
State officials say West Virginia needs to increase support for families before they end up in crisis. (Bess-Hamiti/Pixabay)
November 26, 2018

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Driven by the drug crisis, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources is preparing a package of changes to child-welfare policies.

The number of children taken into state custody has risen by about 50 percent since 2014. DHHR Deputy Secretary Jeremiah Samples said the department wants to try to intervene earlier when families are in trouble - to increase the chance they can stay together.

"West Virginia is experiencing a child-welfare crisis that is being driven by the drug epidemic. It's just bursting the system at the seams,” Samples said. “And so, we have to get ahead of the issue. We can't just react; we have to get in front of the problem."

The reforms would include more flexibility in how the state can spend Medicaid funds for children with emotional issues. It would also provide retention bonuses to help reduce turnover among Child Protective Service workers.

Samples said the department will present the reform package in the next legislative session.

At the federal level, Congress passed the Family First Prevention Services Act in February, 2018. According to DHHR, that legislation is also oriented toward prevention and giving the legal system more flexibility to deal with families in crisis.

Samples said removing a child from a home ends up being traumatic for everyone. He said a better approach is to intervene to support that family.

"Months, a year prior, educating the parents on the importance of ensuring the child goes to school, or managing their anger, or if there's a drug issue in the home; help these families, so that they don't lose their children,” he said.

The most controversial change may be a plan to contract with a private managed care company for health, behavioral and social services for children in the state system. West Virginia would be the first state to make such a move.

Critics have charged it would turn a state function over to a for-profit enterprise, thereby diverting scarce funds. Some supporters have pointed out this is just one of a number of needed changes.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV