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WV struggles with increase in foster children


The Herald-Dispatch

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — More than 6,100 children are in the West Virginia foster care system as of October and the number keeps growing, according to the acting Bureau for Children and Families commissioner Linda Watts.

Watts spoke Tuesday morning to the Joint Commission of Children and Families and told legislators that number had increased in just a few months. Just 16 months ago, about 5,200 children were in foster care in the state, so the increase has amounted to about 18 percent in that time.

The best thing to reverse the trend, she said, is gaining control of the opioid epidemic that plagues the state, because that is a major factor in the growth of children who have been placed in the foster care system.

The types of issues and behavioral problems the children have also are increasing, Watts said. Children struggle with trauma, mental health issues, aggression and other behavioral problems, making it hard to get children adopted, which in turn can add to trauma.

Watts said referrals are sometimes coming in faster than the bureau can respond.

Part of the problem is there are not enough Child Protective Services workers. Watts said that agency is struggling to fill positions while at the same time struggling to retain employees.

She said some of the issues they face with retention and recruitment are competitive salary, the amount of time that is physically required from the employee and just the overall influx of cases.

“This is not an appealing job when you tell them the truth about going into a home where there may be needles and drugs, parents on drugs,” Watts said. “But it is a job that has to be done to save our kids.”

There is also a lack of foster families, along with group homes and treatment facilities. Currently, there are more than 300 children in out-of-state facilities.

Watts told legislators what they really can do to help is work with all agencies to solve the opioid epidemic.

She also added no one yet knows what effect the drug epidemic has on children, particularly those children born after being exposed to drugs in the womb.

“We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us,” she said.

The Legislature may also be able to help the bureau expand its Safe at Home program, which works with wrap-around services to unify families or keep them together in the first place. The program currently only serves children ages 12-17, but Watts said the bureau could expand to a younger population. The issue is the grant funding for the program expires in 2019. It takes more than a year to get approval to expand the program, so Watts said the bureau just did not think it was worth it, time wise.

Committee chair Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, told Watts there may be a way for the Legislature to help expand and maintain that successful program.

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