West Virginia’s foster care system is FUBAR
SNAFU, TARFU and FUBAR are acronyms I learned years ago, while serving in the U.S. Army. The explanations will be found at the conclusion of this column, but since this is a family newspaper I will clean them up slightly.
There is a foster care crisis in our state. We have more children-per-capita in foster care than any other state. Since 2013, the percentage increase nationally of children living in foster or kinship homes has been 11 percent. In West Virginia, that figure is 67 percent. There are now an estimated 7,000 children 18-or-younger living in foster care.
The lion’s share of this increase is due to the opioid epidemic, which has hit our state as hard as, or harder than, any other of the 50 states.
The state’s child welfare system intended to support foster children is grossly underfunded. Caseworkers are overworked and many case are often not thoroughly investigated. Children often get lost in the system. The state Department of Health and Human Resources, whose job it is to solve the problem, badly needs more resources to do its job. More caseworkers are needed. And they must be paid more to do their work, because there is too much turnover in these positions (due to the demanding nature of the work).
Moreover, foster families need easier access to lawyers and mental health professionals. And judges in our state are often forced to make decisions regarding foster children, without adequate or accurate information.
Another aspect of the problem, is an increased number of older foster children running away. Is this because teens are frequently placed in shelters, rather than with families? Tragically, some of these runaways will become too old for state care before they are found.
Unfortunately, DHHR and the West Virginia Legislature have gone in the opposite direction. In my opinion, both have tried to run away from the problem, rather than confront it.
In this year’s regular legislative session, rather than ask the Legislature for more money to pay its people and hire more of them, DHHR asked legislators for an extra $25 million to pay an out-of-state company to “manage” the problem.
I believe that decision was very wrong. That $25 million could have gone a long way toward putting the needed financial resources into the fight.
DHHR needs the resources to investigate every situation and to intervene in a timely manner when necessary. We must provide the additional personnel required and pay all of the needed professionals what it takes to keep them on the job.
And we must reconsider the organization of DHHR itself. It’s the largest and most complex cabinet department in the entire executive branch. It’s never functioned well, even under the direction of at least three cabinet secretaries that I consider first-rate.
SNAFU = “situation normal, all fouled up.” TARFU = “things are really fouled up.” FUBAR = “fouled up beyond all recognition.” West Virginia’s foster care system is FUBAR.