Editor’s note: This ongoing “Wards of the State” series explores West Virginia’s challenges in caring for its foster children as their numbers rise during the drug crisis. Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the children. Part 1:
By M.K. McFarland
FAIRMONT, W.Va. – At the beginning of June, Josiah and Ana Gray had three daughters ages 9 to 16; a 1,704-square-foot, four-bedroom home with a room for each girl; and a budget with little wiggle room.
Before the month was out, much of that had changed.
On June 23 the couple’s brood grew by four foster children ages 2 to 9.
Now every bedroom but one has two occupants, including a fifth bedroom created in their basement.
The family’s budget would be completely in the red if not for the generosity of their church community, family and friends.
On a hot evening in August, the first day of school in Marion County, Josiah stood in the kitchen watching the three youngest children in the living room. The older boy, 7, watched television, while the younger boy and girl, 3 and 2, played with toys. The four older girls were in their rooms or out getting last-minute school supplies.
Dinner was at least an hour away and the official snack time had come and gone. Before the Grays began fostering, a walk through the kitchen at any time of day might have yielded a handful of chips or a piece of fruit between meals. But when the family grew from five to nine, the grocery budget did not grow correspondingly.
“I’m hungry,” said the 7-year-old boy as he wandered into the kitchen.
“You’ll have to wait until dinner,” Josiah responded gently.
Now there was a shelf in the kitchen corner cabinet that held food only for school lunches. Another shelf held snack foods. The kids could have a snack between lunch and dinner, but it was measured and specific. Sometimes it was half a banana, four strawberries or a Go-Gurt. Dinner for nine might be five pork chops, grilled and cut into strips, with a side vegetable and granola bars.
Strategic food planning was one way Josiah and Ana had been able to open their home to four sibling foster children while they waited for state financial assistance that still had not arrived two months later.
Too many kids, not enough homes
The children taken in by the Grays were among 5,169 West Virginia kids in foster care in June. That was 608 more than at the same time last year and almost 1,000 more than in June 2013, according to the state’s monthly legislative foster care reports.
In West Virginia, drug abuse is a driving factor in the growing number of children in foster care.
The state Supreme Court reviews all cases of child abuse and neglect that come before the courts.
Carla Harper, a program manager with the state Department of Health and Human Resources, said substance abuse was a factor in 80 percent of 9,116 cases in which petitions were filed to remove children from their homes between 2011 and 2015. This number does not include cases excluded from the count because risk factors were unreported.
The growing number of children in foster care strains a system that had too few homes two years ago.
In its report on the 2014 fiscal year, the Bureau for Children and Families noted a lack of foster homes (in every region), particularly those homes willing to accept older children, kids with severe behavioral issues and large sibling groups.
The report also noted long waiting lists in every region for substance abuse treatment, and especially a lack of substance abuse treatment programs for youth.
The state has 174 emergency shelter beds for youth who are being assessed to determine if they will be removed from their homes or returned. In September, 177 kids were listed in emergency shelter placement.
Josiah Gray is the executive pastor for a church in Morgantown, and his wife does part-time clerical work.
They watch their finances carefully. When they were a family of five, Ana managed to hold their grocery budget to about $400 a month by collecting coupons, watching for sales and buying in bulk.
There wasn’t enough money for new cars or extravagant vacations, but the family was making ends meet.
Everything changed when Ana opened Facebook late on the night of June 10.
A friend’s message asked if she and Josiah would consider taking a sibling group of two brothers and two sisters into their home. The children’s parents had lost custody, and their grandmother could no longer care for them.
No certified foster family in the state had room for a sibling group of that size, so the brothers and sisters were to be split unless relatives could find a place for them.
The plea came from the children’s cousin in a family for which Ana and Josiah had been praying and trying to offer support for almost two years. For the couple, this turn of events was heart-wrenching.
Josiah had presided at the funeral of the children’s maternal grandmother a year earlier. He had promised the family that if they needed anything, he and his family would be there.
As they read the Facebook message together, Josiah asked Ana what she thought.
She told him, “We have been through so much with this family . . . and I feel like if we have the resources, we need to at least try it.”
The couple called a family meeting and presented the situation to their daughters. Their oldest immediately rose to begin assessing the house and collaborating with her sisters on a floor plan to accommodate everyone. The vote was unanimous.
Realizing their kids were willing to sacrifice their personal space made the decision much less difficult. Within two days of the Facebook message, the couple responded.
They would take the four kids while the parents tried to get back on their feet.
Josiah announced their plan to his church and asked for volunteers to help ready their home.
On Wednesday, June 22, volunteers from the Grays’ church came out for the second time in a week and a half to install dry wall and rewire the unfinished basement. At the end of the day, the two oldest girls moved their belongings downstairs.
The next day, less than two weeks after the Facebook plea, the Grays drove to a neighboring county and picked up the children, officially becoming kinship/relative caregivers in West Virginia’s system of foster care.
Kinship/relative care accounted for 976 children in the foster care system in June. It is the primary model for placement when the state has to remove a child from a home. It is considered less traumatic and disruptive for the children, who get to stay close to their community of support.
To quickly place children in kinship homes, the state offers emergency financial assistance while it fast-tracks families through the certification process to become “agency foster care” homes. Until they are certified, kinship families aren’t entitled to state boarding care payments for foster children.
In June, about 1,500 children were in “agency foster care” with relative/kinship families that had gained certification at some point after taking the children.
When the Grays brought the children home, some of the kids’ extended family members came to welcome them.
Josiah said it felt like a big sleepover that first night. The kids were excited as car seats were transferred to the Grays’ Explorer. Later that night the weight of the situation hit him.
He realized, “They’re not going back home today; they’re staying.”
In the following weeks, the weight of the decision seemed even heavier as their bank account began to shrink.
School was approaching and the foster kids had only summer clothes. The Grays’ grocery bill doubled, and the muffler on one of their vehicles went bad.
The Grays knew the addition of four children was going to stretch their budget, but they thought they could make it work with state aid.
They were entitled to a State Paid Kinship Care Placement Payment while they worked toward certification. Typically, kinship/relative caregivers apply for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF benefits, while they work toward certification. The process is more complicated for those with no blood relationship.
In order to get the State Paid Kinship Care Placement Payment, the paperwork process required the Grays to apply for TANF benefits, get rejected, then take the rejection notice to DHHR, who then could push payment through.
Once certified, the Grays would receive boarding care payments of $600 per child per month to help with food and clothes.
However, the certification process could take months and there would be no back pay.
So Josiah and Ana realized for the time being they would have to count on kinship benefits of about $350 per month.
By the middle of August that check had still not arrived. They had been expecting it since the middle of July. It turned out a computer error had occurred.
Then they were turned down for clothing vouchers. Kids in kinship care can get vouchers for about $300 but only once a year. After a foster family is certified, the boarding care payments are to cover clothes. Ana and Josiah’s foster children had stayed with another relative first, and she had used the vouchers for needed summer clothes.
In August, the state was able to release around $341 in emergency vouchers to the Grays to use at WalMart.
The Grays applied for SNAP benefits, or food stamps, to help subsidize groceries. They exceeded the income cutoff for a nine-person family by $6.
In the middle of August, Josiah met Ana at the door as she was heading out with the two older girls to buy school supplies. She cringed when he handed her cash and told her not to use their bankcard. There wasn’t enough money in their account.
Coming in Part 2: The Grays had always planned to foster or adopt but were waiting until they were more comfortable financially. Circumstances dictated otherwise, and their community has rallied around them. Josiah says, “Do we really love people? If we do, then we’re willing to sacrifice things for the sake of others, and so if it means that we don’t get to eat what we used to eat, then that’s OK. The love we’re showing these kids is worth it.
— Writer M.K. McFarland worked for more than a decade in state media and now teaches at the Reed College of Media at West Virginia University. She volunteers as a cuddler in the newborn intensive care unit at Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown. She began working on this series after seeing the effects of the opioid epidemic on newborn children.