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WV Legislature Interims: Committee on the Judiciary discusses state’s Child Protective Services

By Autumn Shelton, WV Press Association

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The West Virginia Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on the Judiciary convened on Monday to discuss the effectiveness of previously enacted legislation concerning the state’s Child Protective Services (CPS) and to gather insights from experts on how to improve the system. 

Committee Chairman Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan, began by stating that both he and Chairman Del. Moore Capito, R-Kanawha, wanted to dedicate the entire interim meeting to the child welfare system. 

“Chairman Capito and I both have agreed that this legislature has made pretty substantial investments of time and work on legislation to try and address some of the problems that we’ve seen and heard about around the state, with respect to child protective services and children in danger of abuse and neglect, and who have been victims of abusive and neglectful conduct,” Trump said. “The bills that we passed are bills that created some pretty substantial changes in the structure of the whole Department of Health and Human Resources.” 

The first speaker to address the committee was Judge R. Steven Redding of the Twenty-Third Judicial Circuit, which includes Berkeley, Morgan and Jefferson counties. 

According to Redding, while some improvements have been made, the child protective services crisis is ongoing. 

“This is not a new crisis,” Redding said. “While CPS has been deeply affected by the opioid [epidemic], we in the eastern panhandle have been in and out of crisis in the CPS arena for decades.” 

He explained that CPS staffing shortages have led to months-long delays between a CPS referral being made, and first contact with the family. And, although salary increases have been beneficial in recruitment and retention efforts, problems still exist. 

“Salaries have increased to the point where we are presently competitive with adjoining jurisdictions,” Redding said. “Nonetheless, there is, as of September, still a 400 referral backlog, and we continue to observe deficiencies that cannot continue.” 

Redding added that this backlog can have “catastrophic consequences” for children. 

“In fairness to the department, a number of the recent hires are still in training,” he said. “Thus, whether they’ll prove to be efficacious in turning the tide on the history of tragic and unnecessary outcomes is yet to be known. The significant issues we are experiencing involve the department’s inability to complete critical tasks in a timely fashion.” 

Redding also stated that court reports, which are required to be filed every 60 days in child abuse and neglect cases, are not being completed on time. 

“That is the only mechanism in place that permits the court to be apprised of how the case is moving within our 90-day review hearings,” Redding said. “I can’t recall the last time I received a court report. As a consequence, I have no idea what is happening with the children, or their parents, between hearings. This places the court in a position of being proactive, rather than reactive.” 

Other issues Redding said he frequently witnesses is that payments to external entities, such as Day Report Centers and medical professionals, are delinquent, which can prompt providers to cease care, and that unnecessary judicial delays occur when a case submission isn’t filed on time. 

Regarding juvenile delinquency cases, Redding stated that the absence of an in-state residential treatment facility is a “glaring concern.” 

“Unfortunately, some of our children exhibit behaviors that are so out of control and dangerous that no in-state facility will accept them,” Redding said, noting that children over the age of 14, who are deemed competent, may be placed in juvenile detention facilities. 

“For those under the age of 14, or for those 14 and over who are intellectually delayed, on the spectrum, or suffering from significant mental health issues, they are deemed incompetent to stand trial, and the law prohibits the court from placing them in detention,” Redding said. “This creates an untenable situation where it’s too dangerous to leave the child in the community, but no in-state facility will accept them, again, because of the severity of their behaviors.” 

Because it often takes months for a child to be placed in an out-of-state facility, this often leads to children “sitting in DHHR offices,” or being housed in hotel rooms, he continued. 

“This is unfair and unsafe for the children, and this is unfair and unsafe for the department workers,” Redding said. 

Lastly, Redding said the workload for each CPS employee is often too much, and can lead to low-morale and high turnover. 

The next speaker before the committee was Jeffrey Pack, commissioner of the Bureau for Social Services.

Pack explained that pay raises for both CPS and Youth Services workers have been implemented, and that passage of Senate Bill 273 during the 2023 Legislative Session has allowed the BSS to allocate more workers throughout the state based on population. However, there is still a 16% CPS vacancy rate, and a 10% Youth Services Worker vacancy rate. 

In response to a question from Sen. Trump about whether any attention has been given to the need for an in-state facility for juveniles, Pack expressed agreement with the need for one, and stated that a lot of attention has been given to this issue. 

“There’s never a week that goes by where there’s not some level of conversation that’s occurring on whether that’s within the Bureau for Social Services or the Bureau for Behavioral Health.”

Pack added that there have been recent discussions with providers, who have expressed interest in coming to West Virginia. 

Lastly, Trump asked what, if anything, the legislature should consider for the upcoming legislative session to provide more support for those in the child welfare system. 

Redding responded that court appointed attorneys for these cases are not paid enough. 

After seeking legal volunteers to “take on the load,” Redding said the solution may be to appoint attorneys against their will. 

“The discussion now is, should we begin utilizing the Rules of Professional Conduct of Attorneys, and start appointing lawyers against their will in these cases, which is a decision we don’t want to make, but are getting to the point where we have to do that,” Redding stated. “The lawyers who are doing guardian ad litem work are working 60, 70 hours a week and aren’t keeping up. They are not able to get their orders in on time.” 

Pack mentioned that the transition to a new pay system, as established in SB 273, would likely yield positive results, and that additional allocations for CPS workers on a county by county basis may be beneficial.

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