By Shauna Johnson |
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Twelve of the more than 6,800 children currently in foster care in West Virginia have filed a lawsuit against the state Department of Health and Human Resources, the agency that oversees the foster care system, and several state leaders, including Governor Jim Justice.
A Better Childhood, a national child advocacy organization, Disability Rights West Virginia and Shaffer and Shaffer, a West Virginia law firm, collaborated for the federal lawsuit claiming DHHR has failed West Virginia’s youngest, most at-risk citizens.
“I would challenge anyone to look at one of these kids and tell them that we’re doing the best we can,” said Rich Walters, a senior attorney with Shaffer and Shaffer in Charleston, an attorney for the plaintiffs.
“It’s simply not fair to these children and something has to be done.”
The lawsuit alleged rampant issues with institutionalization for children, moves outside of West Virginia, available community-based mental health services and overextended caseworkers.
Too often, the lawsuit claimed, foster care children ended up in temporary shelters, hotels and inadequate kinship care, were subjected to abuse or became lost in the system with few follow-up checks.
“We have a state agency that’s simply refusing to do what has to be done,” Walters said of DHHR.
Instead of monetary damages, what was being sought with the lawsuit was a directive for fundamental reform for West Virginia’s foster care system.
“What we’re looking for the court to do is to enter a court order simply requiring DHHR to comply with the state and federal laws that already exist,” he said.
One suggestion was the use of a monitor, potentially, to hold the agency accountable.
In a lengthy statement released Tuesday afternoon, state DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch detailed a number of steps the agency has taken in recent years.
“We have been consistent and deliberate in our commitment to the safety and well-being of West Virginia’s children,” Crouch said.
“The company that filed this lawsuit against the State of West Virginia has not reached out to me or any member of our leadership team to ask questions regarding what we are doing in this state or to even engage in a conversation regarding these issues. It appears that their 12 a.m. embargoed lawsuit was aimed to gain attention in the press, as they have done in several other states. We are always willing to talk about our problems in West Virginia, and work together with our partners and others to improve the services and the care of our children.
In this case, Jonathan R. vs. Justice, the plaintiffs range in ages from two to 17, but the case was being brought as a class action lawsuit to allow for expansion.
“There’s an excess of 6,000 children in the care of the DHHR’s foster care system and the purpose of this is to cover all those children,” Walters said.
Sub-classes could include foster children with disabilities, foster children who are close to aging out of the system and children in kinship care.
Along with Gov. Justice, the individuals named in the lawsuit included Bill Crouch, secretary of the state DHHR, Jeremiah Samples, deputy DHHR secretary and Linda Watts, commissioner of the Bureau for Children and Families in DHHR.
“This is not something that has happened overnight. This has been going on for decades,” Walters told MetroNews of the current state of West Virginia’s foster care system.
“A lot of individuals are going to point to the opioid crisis and say, ’Well, everybody got caught off guard by that. It’s overwhelmed a system that was already taxed.’ And it’s true to a degree, but this system was at a breaking point before the opioid crisis.”
DHHR has been in the process of contracting with a managed care provider to oversee West Virginia’s foster care system beginning as early as Jan. 1, 2020, which Secretary Crouch noted.
“This March, the West Virginia Legislature made child welfare a priority and passed a bill allowing DHHR to contract with a managed care organization to help ensure all children in foster care receive the care they need,” he said.