CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WDVM) — A federal lawsuit is claiming the state of West Virginia’s foster care system is failing to protect children.
The class action lawsuit is suing West Virginia Governor Jim Justice, the Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) along with other state officials, who are calling for more work to be done in the state’s foster care system.
Marcia Lowry is Executive Director of A Better Childhood, a New York based advocacy group.
She along with other partners in West Virginia, including Shaffer and Shaffer, and Disability Rights of West Virginia share in their 105 page complaint, filed in U.S District Court, stories of neglect from 10 children around the state. The youngest is only 14 months, under the state’s care.
“We consider the foster care system in West Virginia really in a state of crisis and it needs attention and it needs that attention now,” said Lowry. “Many of them are kinship foster families which is good, except that no services at all are provided to the kinship families.”
For an 11-year-old who has down syndrome, her parents were convicted of education neglect and sentenced to prison. According to the complaint, she has been in the foster care system since December 2018. She has been separated from her three year old brother, who is also a part of the foster care system.
The lawsuit states that the Department of Health and Human Resources plans to send her to an institutional care facility, which states is “marked low staff-to-resident ratio, poor training and overnight of their staffs, and abuse and neglect from staff towards residents.”
“We have over 300 kids in the foster care system that are currently being placed out of state. We have 1.8 million people in this state,” said Jeremiah Underhill, Legal Director at Disability Rights of West Virginia in Charleston.
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Underhill says while opioid is an issue and factor, it is not the driving force for the problem: “The problems in the child welfare system go back 20 years. Opioid is just exasperating that problem.”
The basis of the lawsuit, according to officials, is that the state does not have an adequate number of appropriate foster care homes.
Lowry adds, “One child is seven-years-old and is in out of state facility because the state can’t find a place for him in state.”
The governor’s office told WDVM, they had no official comment on this issue. Recently, the West Virginia DHHR filed a motion to dismiss the child welfare lawsuit.
“Substantive changes have been made, and are continuing to be made, to the state’s child welfare system with the help of the West Virginia legislature and many experts in the field,” said Bill Crouch, Cabinet Secretary of DHHR. “We continue to move forward with critical initiatives to improve family stability and ensure the well-being of the children of our state.”
Advocates are hoping that this lawsuit moves the needle on this issue to improve the foster care system in a meaningful way.
“Keeping them close to their community is what’s best,” said Underhill.
Officials say in 2018, West Virginia had 791 reported runaways from its foster care system, and the state is on track to exceed that number in 2019.
Earlier this year, West Virginia agreed to expand mental health services for children.