Emily Rice Published

Child Welfare Removal: A Difficult Process For Children

Closeup of unrecognizable woman hugging teenage girl with care and love. The girl holds a teddy bear.Seventyfour/Adobe Stock

Even in ideal circumstances, the removal of a child from their home by Child Protective Services (CPS) is always traumatic.

There is no easy way to take a child away from the only home they have ever known, according to Kelli Caseman, executive director and founding member of Think Kids West Virginia, a children’s advocacy group.

“Even if they’re living in a home where they’re abused or neglected, they still, you know, usually love mom and dad very much,” Caseman said.

The number of children in foster care in West Virginia increased by 57 percent between 2012 and 2021, according to the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. Most experts in the field attribute the influx to the ongoing opioid epidemic in the region.

Shanna Gray is the state director of West Virginia Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA, and a foster parent. She said the reason for removal will dictate how and what the process looks like for the child and family separation, and the process will differ from state to state.

For example, a family working with CPS to improve their circumstances would have a safety plan in place, making the transition less jarring for the child if they were removed.

“Maybe the child isn’t fully separated, parents aren’t losing rights or anything, but the child goes and stays with grandma for a week, a seven day period to say, ‘Hey, Mom and Dad, get this resolved, whatever we have, what we are requiring, we’ll be back in a week to check in and see,” Gray said. “So it might be a temporary separation during that safety plan, the different those different types of safety plans are unique.”

However, in cases where children are determined to be in “immediate danger,” separation is far more abrupt.

“It’s very difficult,” Gray said. “It’s tough. Sometimes kids in these situations, obviously [it is] age dependent, they don’t have a scope of what they have been or have been experiencing is always they don’t always know that what they’re experiencing is not the same as what other people experience.”

While Gray is familiar with the removal process, CASA does not get involved until the case goes to court.

“We’re the child advocate from a community lens,” Gray said. “So when there’s a child abuse and neglect proceeding before the circuit court, the family and child have a CPS worker, of course, and that’s the social services side. They have a guardian ad litem who is appointed to them and that’s the attorney and the lawyer side. The parent also has either a public defender or a parent’s respondent attorney. And then in areas where CASA is available, the judge may appoint a community advocate or a CASA volunteer.”

The CASA volunteer is meant to be independent and objective, according to Gray. They conduct an investigation and compile recommendations for the judge to disseminate to all parties in the case.

In the past, out-of-state placements isolated the children and impeded their progress according to Caseman.

“Often, when a child isn’t getting that love and attention at home, they look for it at school, and often get it there,” Caseman said. “And so not only do these kids lose the home, the only home they may have ever known, but then they lose those community supports that often teach them resilience and support.”

Both Caseman and Gray advocate for community support to help children in the custody of an overburdened system.

“But what we’re not doing is really working collaboratively to ensure that people know where their services are, where they can be referred to, and then identify the gaps where there are no services,” Caseman said. “And we do know that there are definitely places in the state where there are just no services at all.”

Gray said CASA’s work is defined by the guiding principle that children grow and develop best with their family of origin when that can be safely achieved. 

She cited a study from the University College London and King’s College London that found when a child grows up in foster care, that child has an 80 percent higher chance of developing a long-term terminal illness.

“Young people really internalize about being in foster care, ‘What did I do? How did I come into foster care, why this happened to me, was it my fault?’ And so all of those mental impacts have very real long term mental, emotional, social and physical outcomes,” Gray said.

According to West Virginia’s Child Welfare Dashboard, of West Virginia’s more than 6,000 foster children, 38 percent were placed in certified kinship or a relative’s home. Twenty-seven percent are receiving therapeutic foster care at stabilization and treatment homes.

If you suspect or know that a child is being abused or neglected, call the Centralized Intake for Abuse and Neglect at 1-800-352-6513.

Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting with support from Marshall Health.