House Makes Progress with Foster Care Legislation

0
108

Bipartisan Effort Tackles Crisis

Creating bipartisan legislation focused on foster care reform has been top priority for many members of the House this week. West Virginia has more than 7,000 kids in the foster care system and the Legislature is working to make changes.

One bill, House Bill 4092, aims to make several changes to improve the foster care system. The main goal of this bill is to make it easier to become a foster parent or kinship family. This bill provides benefits to foster children, foster parents, and the child placing agencies.

As amended, the bill increases the per diem rate for foster parents. This rate has not been increased since 2009. The bill establishes that foster parents will be reimbursed a floor of 40% of the daily rate that child placing agencies receive per child. The Department of Health and Human Resources will pay child placing agencies a minimum daily rate of $75 for services provided to each child in placement. Families fostering through the department, will be provided at least $900 per month for each child placed in the home.

During Thursday’s meeting in Health and Human Resources, House Bill 4092 was amended to include kinship families in the payment raise. Certified kinship families would also receive $900 per month for each child place in their home. This concerned many delegates, who were unsure if this payment increase would be too much to fit in the legislative budget.

Because of the fiscal implications of this bill, it next heads to the House Finance Committee before being reported to the full House.

Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, is one of the sponsors for this bill and another foster care bill, House Bill 4094.

“This [bill] needs to be a priority,” he said. “The money needs to be put in by Finance. I don’t think the rate increase is unreasonable, but we’ll see where the money goes.”

Pushkin stressed the importance of this bill.

“We need to make this a priority, put our words into action, and do something to fix this crisis,” he said.

House Bill 4092 also outlines a Foster Parents and Foster Children Bill of Rights. There are several terms defined in the Bill of Rights, but some notable conditions require that a foster child is to live in a safe, healthy, and comfortable setting where he or she is treated with respect, to be free from physical, sexual, psychological, or other abuse, exploitation or corporal punishment, to receive adequate and healthy food, adequate fitting clothing, and, a travel bag and to receive medical, dental, vision, mental health services, substance use treatment services. The bill of rights also aims to keep siblings together during placement.

This bill also defines the standards for reasonable and prudent parent standards. This relates to the standard defined by parental decisions that clearly have the child’s best mental, emotional, and physical development as priorities.

Additionally, there are minimum standards and expectations set in this legislation for the guardian ad litem, which is an attorney appointed by the court to make recommendations in the best interest of children. The guardian ad litem assigned to a case must conduct an independent investigation, meet with the child in person and provide a thoroughly analyzed recommendation to the court. This report must be submitted to the court before the dispositional hearing. Copies of this report will be sent to the involved parties and their council. The bill also defines the information that must be included in the guardian ad litem’s report. This part of the bill aims to reform how the court deals with foster child cases.

Another bill, House Bill 4094, outlines the duties for the foster care ombudsmen, a position under the Office of Inspector General. This creates access to foster care children and records, including subpoena powers, to assist in investigation of complaints and fulfillment of the foster care ombudsman’s duties. This also creates misdemeanor offenses for interference with the foster care ombudsmen investigations. This bill establishes a statewide procedure for the foster care ombudsmen’s investigations.

House Bill 4094 is on second reading in the House.

Delegate Jeffrey Pack, R-Raleigh, said that foster care legislation is a large step in the right direction to fixing the foster care crisis in the state. Pack is a sponsor for both House Bills 4092 and 4094.

“It’s incumbent on us in the legislature to make bold steps to ensure as normal of a childhood that these children can have,” he said.