Last week, Erin Beck, the state reporter for our sister paper in Beckley, reported on a class-action lawsuit that names Gov. Jim Justice, DHHR Cabinet Secretary Bill Crouch, DHHR Deputy Secretary Jeremiah Samples and DHHR Commissioner of the Bureau for Children and Families Linda Watts as defendants in a case that claims the foster care system in West Virginia is being fundamentally mismanaged and failing the children who are supposed to be in the state’s care.
The lawsuit outlines troubling and inhumane conditions for children who are removed from their homes. In one case, an 11-year-old girl with Down syndrome was allegedly moved between three separate homes and now the state plans to send her to The Potomac Center in Romney, which has had formal allegations filed against it of abuse, lack of access of claimed services for disabled residents and poorly trained employees.
Apart from this lawsuit, as a result of an ongoing criminal investigation, State Police have claimed the Potomac Center staff abused 12 children, ages seven to 17, including physical, sexual and psychological abuse. The opioid epidemic has played a part in our state’s struggling foster care system, but the suit alleges that this is not the root of the problem – the system was already poorly managed.
DHHR officials have said the state has about 7,000 children in custody, and the lawsuit argues that officials have repeatedly failed the children they are charged with protecting. Plaintiffs alleged that without adequate suitable homes, DHHR segregates children in institutions, lodges them in temporary shelter care, places them in overcrowded foster care homes, or places them in poorly screened kinship foster homes.
The lawsuit says that recruiting foster families is difficult in the state because “DHHR caseworkers routinely exclude foster parents from MDT meetings, verbally threaten to remove children from foster parents’ care when they engage in any sort of advocacy that challenges the caseworkers’ orders, are difficult to contact in crisis situations (such as when consent is needed for medical or behavioral health care), and often speak disrespectfully towards foster parents.” MDT meetings are multi-disciplinary team meetings, where caseworkers, prosecuting attorneys, parents, lawyers and others meet to address family problems that led to abuse and neglect.
“We’re not seeking money damages,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of A Better Childhood, the lead plaintiff in the suit. “We’re seeking for things to change going forward – that the government must take care of these kids.”
Crouch says the department welcomes “the opportunity to make our case in court.”
“The lawsuit that was filed...will cost the State of West Virginia millions of dollars and was filed by a company that has never contacted us to ask the question: ‘What are you doing to fix these problems?’ Crouch said in a prepared statement.
According to Crouch, DHHR began making changes to the state’s child welfare system in 2013, and has increased those efforts every year since then. In some cases, increasing efforts count for something, but in the case of child welfare, they do not. Handling children more responsibly in the future does not negate the trauma and mistreatment others may have endured while in the state’s care.
Crouch laments not being asked about the changes his department is making to address these issues – we would ask a different question. Who allowed the system to become this horrific in the first place?