CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Three weeks into the 2020 regular legislative session, the House of Delegates is focused on refining three bipartisan bills designed to reform and improve the state’s foster care system.
West Virginia’s substance abuse epidemic has pushed the state’s child welfare system beyond capacity. With nearly 7,000 children now in the system, lawmakers have been working on ways to better manage it, reduce regulatory burdens, and encourage more people to become foster parents.
Lawmakers last year passed House Bill 2010, which made initial reforms, including transitioning the foster healthcare system to a managed care model like the state’s Medicaid system, and this year’s bills are designed to build upon those reform measures.
“This stands to be the most important issue we’re going to tackle this session,” said Delegate Jeffrey Pack, R-Raleigh, Vice-Chairman of the House Health and Human Resources Committee and co-sponsor of the three foster care bills.
“Since becoming a delegate, I’ve held a number of town halls in my district, and each time one of the top issues I hear about are the problems people are experiencing with the foster care system,” Delegate Pack said. “Should these bills pass, they will directly and significantly improve child welfare for foster children and reduce many of the burdens and impediments people face when deciding to become foster parents.”
House Bill 4092 would improve the state’s Foster Children’s Bill of Rights, create a new Foster Parents’ and Kinship Bill of Rights, make critical reforms to parenting standards and the guardian ad litem child representation process, and increase the daily reimbursement rates for foster homes.
House Bill 4094 will strengthen the office of the Foster Care Ombudsman, which oversees the foster care system within the state Department of Health and Human Resources.
House Bill 4129 eliminates the waiting period for the hearing on an adoption petition and adds flexibility to the process by allowing the adoption hearing to take place in the county in which the foster child was originally removed or the county in which the adoptive parents live.
All three bills have bipartisan sponsorship and were developed over the past year by the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Health, which includes both Senators and Delegates, during the interim committee process.
“These bills are the result of a great deal of investigation, collaboration and sincere dedication to improving this critical system for the benefit of our foster children and parents,” Delegate Pack said. “While we still have much more work ahead of us, I’m convinced these bills will immediately help ease the burden for people across our state.”
The House is expected to vote on House Bill 4192 on Monday, while House Bills 4092 and 4094 continue to be refined prior to a full House vote.
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Meanwhile, on Wednesday the House Committee on Senior, Children and Family Issues heard a presentation from Bonnie Dunn, Extension Specialist at West Virginia State University, on the state’s Healthy Grandfamilies program.
West Virginia ranks second among states for the percentage of grandparents responsible for their grandchildren. The Healthy Grandfamilies program provides support and training for these families. Initially offered in the Kanawha Valley, the Legislature last year provided $300,000 in funding to expand the program statewide.
Many delegates have expressed interest in appropriating additional funding for the program this year to ensure it is fully established in all 55 counties, as it has proven to be a cost-effective way to help families across the state provide care and support for vulnerable children. The program has also started to build private donations to help it become self-sufficient.
“We have seen so many grandparents across our state step up and care for their grandchildren, and I think this program is a great way to support them as they support their families,” said Delegate Dianna Graves, R-Kanawha.