By Vicki Smith
Two branches of government that try to help troubled West Virginia kids but often function as adversaries are teaming up on a project to find permanent homes for 50 foster children.
The New View initiative involves seven attorneys picked by the state Supreme Court and dozens of cold cases chosen from an initial pool of 200 at the state Department of Health and Human Resources.
The program is modeled after one in Georgia and is designed to put fresh eyes on the toughest cases, said Nikki Tennis, director of the Division of Children’s Services for the state court system. On average, most West Virginia children are in foster care less than 12 months, according to the DHHR. But many bounce around the system for years — some to as many as 15 temporary homes.
Georgia was able to find permanent homes for about half of the “cold cases” it reviewed, Tennis said, and court officials are hopeful the West Virginia team will have similar or better results. If it does, the courts may continue the New View program.
The “viewers” will be trained in April, and then they will investigate each child’s case. At the end of the year, team members will produce reports on each child and a statistical report on all 50 that could offer guidance to the courts and the DHHR.
The work will not only recap the project, Tennis said, but identify potential patterns. If it finds bureaucratic barriers, communication failures or other systemic shortcomings, for example, the courts could recommend changes in rules, policies, practices or laws.
Gretchen Lewis, a Charleston attorney and former DHHR secretary who will be part of the team, said the report won’t be about pointing fingers.
“The assessment of blame is not the point,” she said. “Finding out what went wrong so we can prevent it in the future is important.”
Georgia found a variety of reasons that children languished in state custody for years. Sometimes, case workers left and their files weren’t handed off. Other times, cases were inadvertently left off court dockets.
“It’s very heartbreaking to think about,” Lewis said. “It is a problem nationally, and the reasons can be many. But it really doesn’t matter; you just have to get in there and help these kids.”
Brent Benjamin, chief justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court, said the program won’t solve every child’s problems overnight, but “we will measure success one young life at a time.”
“We cannot let these children be forgotten,” he recently wrote in The West Virginia Lawyer, the state bar magazine. “This is a moral issue every bit as much as it is a legal issue.”
Lewis, who often works as a guardian for children in the court system, said she volunteered for New View partly because it’s a rare opportunity for two branches of government — executive and judicial — to collaborate.
“It combines the resources of both to look after the best interest of children,” she said, “and particularly these children who have been somewhat lost in the process.”
The courts often see these children only “when everything has gone wrong, and oftentimes, the DHHR and the court are practically adversaries,” she said. If New View is a success, it could have a positive effect on future collaborations.
“And my guess is the legislative branch may come into play when this is all over,” Lewis added.
Lewis and other “viewers” will be trained in conducting investigations, developing family trees and hunting down relatives. They’ll learn about options for permanent placement, such as legal guardianships, adoption and other formalized living arrangements. In some cases, viewers could recommend emancipation.
Tennis said the solutions will depend on each child’s circumstances and needs.
“At the very least,” she said, “we would like to link children with people who will stay in their lives and with resources that will help them become successful adults.”
The idea is simply to give them a place to call home — for good. Lewis said the simple need to belong struck her last Christmas as she and her daughter volunteered at an emergency shelter for 12- to 17-year-olds. They’d bought the children duffel bags, and each had a luggage tag.
The children didn’t know what to write.
“They don’t have an address ... something you and I would take for granted and fill out a thousand times on a form,” Lewis said. “They’re removed from their homes very suddenly, and all of their things end up in trash bag. And they tend to see themselves that way.
“If we can get permanency for a majority of these kids,” she said, “think what a difference we will have made in their lives.”