Emily Rice Published

Foster Children With Disabilities In W.Va. Have Fewer Placement Options

A child's hands are seen drawing with a blue pencil.Krisanapong Detraphiphat / Getty Images

By: Katelyn Aluise

WVPB reporter Emily Rice spoke with WVU graduate Katelyn Aluise to discuss this story she reported for her WVU Reed College of Media capstone project.

Experts Express Need For Foster Families, Resources Amid DHHR Lawsuit

Karlee Furrow has worked at the Southern West Virginia Exceptional Youth Emergency Shelter (EYES) in Beckley as a behavioral support specialist for almost two years. 

Her work consists of caring for children, teaching them new skills, observing them through group therapy and accommodating their unique needs. 

“The hardest (part) is that we have had some troubled kids here that want to fight and have to be restrained,” Furrow said. “And it’s hard to watch a kid go through that. We have one kid here who’s nonverbal, and the most rewarding thing is getting him to say everyone’s names here.” 

According to the specialists at the EYES Shelter, the children that come to them may have physical or behavioral disorders that would prevent them from readily going into shelters or group homes with able-bodied or neuro-typical children. Furrow said the care they would receive is less catered toward their needs.

“There is always a need for a child with autism or a child that is nonverbal, that they can’t just go anywhere else because everybody can’t offer them the resources that they need, like we can be able to make available for them,” she said. 

A brightly lit hallway is shown with inspirational quotes and colorful decorations on the walls.
The Exceptional Youth Emergency Shelter (EYES) is located inside of a house in Beckley, West Virginia. It is currently home to six disabled youths ages 13 and under who share almost everything from food, toys and even bedrooms in the short amount of time they are at the facility.

Katelyn Aluise/ WVU

Exceptional Foster Children Need Specialized Care, Which Is Limited In W.Va.

In West Virginia, there are more than 6,200 children in foster care, according to the state’s Child Welfare Dashboard

According to Whitney Wetzel, a spokesperson from the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) the agency does not keep track of how many of these children have profound physical, behavioral or developmental disabilities. An estimated 17 to 20, or less than 1 percent of these children, have been placed in Medley homes, which are homes where caregivers are specifically trained to foster disabled youth.

Out of the eight emergency shelters available to foster children in the state, only one of them, the EYES, was designed to house and care for their exceptional needs. 

The EYES, which is regularly over-capacity, has five beds.

Karlee Furrow is a behavioral support specialist at the Southern West Virginia Exceptional Youth Emergency Shelter where she takes care of the children in the home throughout the day. Furrow believes more resources like the EYES are necessary for the state, as the shelter is not large enough to accommodate the particular needs of all the disabled foster youth.

A children's bedroom with three beds is shown with green bedspreads.
There are only three bedrooms total at the EYES, meaning that some children will have to share space. In the boys’ bedroom, there are three beds angled to fit inside the small bedroom.

Katelyn Aluise/WVU

Children with behavioral disorders who don’t make it into the shelter may go to a training facility, like the Potomac Center, where they can temporarily receive care that would allow them to more readily adapt to a neuro-typical foster or group home. The Potomac Center does not, however, specialize in caring for kids with physical or developmental disabilities.

The Potomac Center also offers the Birch Lane Group Home which is geared towards temporarily caring for teenagers, providing them with individualized success plans that prepare them for their future as adults. 

While the turnover for children at the EYES is usually a couple of months, with the longest stay lasting for just two years, children in the Intensive Training program at the Potomac Center may be there anywhere between six to 12 months at any of their three facilities with a total of 24 beds. 

Otherwise, children who don’t achieve permanency or find an accommodating foster home may be sent to out-of-state group homes, according to Mary Gibbs, program manager for Specialized Family Care, which trains Medley homes to care for children with profound disabilities.

EYES Supervisor La’AmyA Manley said these children may also need additional care before being considered for placement with a foster family because of trauma or behaviors that make it difficult for them to be in the home.

“Extreme physical and verbal aggression, in some cases, would make them not suitable for foster care … with other children,” she said. “And sometimes, we get kids that are on the spectrum that they just need the life skills before they can go into a foster home.”

Katy Yost, a case manager for the EYES, provides group and individual therapy for the children at the shelter. This may involve teaching coping mechanisms that deal with trauma, which she thinks could be important for all foster children. They also teach life skills like ways for a child who is non-verbal to communicate their needs.

Katy Yost is a case manager at the EYES, where she assists with finding placement for the children, as well as caring for them throughout the day and providing both individual and group therapy sessions. She performs many exercises with the children to help them learn to communicate and progress while at the shelter.

A chart of feelings and emotions with photos to help children express themselves and make their needs known.
A poster displayed next to the kitchen in the EYES includes several pictures, symbols and basic words. The caretakers use these images to train children who are nonverbal to communicate their needs at the home.

Katelyn Aluise/WVU

Gibbs said in an email that typical foster care homes are not equipped to deal with the behavioral or medical issues these children may have, making out-of-state placement a likely alternative if there are no Medley homes available.

This may be because the Medley program that train foster families in their area closes without a social worker present or because Medley funds from that program are no longer available to cover medical expenses, among other reasons.

According to Gibbs, only about three children per year are adopted, or placed permanently, by a Medley home. 

At the end of the day, she said it is simply more difficult to find homes for children with additional needs.


Out-Of-State Facilities Are Allegedly Unsafe For W.Va. Foster Children

One of the out-of-state facilities in which foster children have been placed, George Junior Republic (GJR), was the focus of a 10-page report that documented evidence of “practices that jeopardize the health, safety and well being of youth at the facility” over the course of six days in January and February of 2015. 

The report involves claims that children were seen on camera being restrained, locked in their rooms, denied privacy and forced to sit in “time out” for hours on end among other grievances. 

In a letter sent from the DHHR to GJR, the state determined that group therapy for these children was insufficient or completely non-existent in some cases. Several instances of special needs requests, including ADHD testing and shoe inserts for uneven leg growth were not met.

In September 2015, the DHHR sent a letter to GJR notifying them that they would be permanently terminating placements at the facility and developing alternative placements, as the state found that their practices were not suitable for rehabilitating and caring for children who have suffered trauma. 

This is not the only time West Virginia has had to suspend or terminate placements at an out-of-state facility accused of abusing and/or neglecting foster children. Reporting by Mountain State Spotlight highlights several facilities that have been the subjects of these reports, including some with assault allegations.

In 2019, a lawsuit was filed against the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Services alleging that it had violated the rights of every child admitted into state care, including that they had limited resources and failed to create permanency plans, leading children to have to stay in these “unsafe” out-of-state group homes. 

The court found that there was enough evidence from the plaintiffs to support that the “DHHR maintains an inadequate array of placements to meet the needs of these foster care children,” and that the lack of placements and stability led to “an unreasonable risk of harm.” The court also found that there was sufficient evidence of “high caseloads and chronic understaffing.”

This lawsuit was granted class-action status in August, allowing it to proceed in court.

Steve Tuck, former CEO of the Children’s Home Society of West Virginia, said that children who were sent out of state and or moved around often found it difficult to adjust to West Virginia culture and staying with a foster family or their biological family.This could create additional stress for the child. 

Tuck said out-of-state facilities offer care for larger groups of children with less individualized and or specialized care, and the time spent out-of-state could delay permanency even further. 

“And then nobody can really check on (the kids), and there’s not much contact with their own families back here in West Virginia,” Tuck said. 

Exceptional Foster Children Have More Difficulty Being Placed

Carna Metheney-White, director of permanency services at the Children’s Home Society of West Virginia, estimates that fewer than about 10 percent of the families who apply to foster children within the organization are willing to take in children with disabilities. 

“A lot of our families, both parents work outside the home, and sometimes it’s difficult for them to be able to take the youth to their therapy, all the therapy appointments, their medical appointments, or if they’re having challenges in school, to be able to pick up the child from school, Metheney-White said”

By at least three years of age, families of foster care children in West Virginia may apply for an Intellectually or Developmentally Disabled (IDD) waiver to assist with any associated financial needs. 

However, Lesley Cotrell, Director of the Center for Excellence in Disabilities at West Virginia University, said that these are known to have long wait times. 

Amanda Sharp, a stay-at-home mother of four and foster care provider with CHS, considers herself an advocate for both foster care and children with special needs.

Two of her children, Willie, 10, and her late son, Mason, had extensive medical histories and disabilities that required additional physical and financial help, as well as regular training on Sharp’s part.

Amanda Sharp is a stay-at-home mother of four children, all of whom she adopted. She often needs to provide 24-hour care for her son, Willie, who has profound disabilities, that requires additional training and state funding. Although she recognizes that the work is hard, she wants to serve as a positive example to those who are considering adopting children with disabilities.

A child's toybox with a black background and red letters.
Amanda Sharp’s adopted son, Willie, has profound disabilities. Willie’s father, Justin Sharp, built him a sensory box for his room, which has several attachments that allow him to both play and calm himself down.

Katelyn Aluise/WVU

Still, Sharp considers herself an outlier as someone who is both willing and able to care for foster children with additional needs.

Medical supplies are shown in a white carrying basket.
Amanda Sharp provides around-the-clock care for her son, Willie, who has profound disabilities. In her house, she keeps a wheelchair, a stair lift and several other accommodations for her son around the house to make them easily accessible. Next to her couch, in the living room, sits a large basket with medical supplies for caring for her son after his several surgeries he has recently undertaken.

Katelyn Aluise/WVU

White said while EYES has been a “godsend” in providing CHS with additional time to collect information about a child’s needs and find them a home with families like Sharp’s, the shelter is only meant to be a temporary solution.

“The children are only supposed to be here for like 30 to 90 days, but the children are often times harder to place because of whatever reason,” ,” she said. “And there’s a limit on specialized foster care homes…A child may have too many medical needs, and where we don’t have a doctor present, we might not be able to accept them.”

Manley said the EYES is raising money to move to a 10-bed shelter. So far, they have met $1.4 million of their $3 million goal.

A postcard is shown on the side of a fridge for the EYES Shelter.
A bulletin board inside the EYES portrays a computer-generated photo of the plans for the new facility, which would double the shelter’s resources when finished.

Katelyn Aluise/WVU

According to the DHHR’s Child Welfare Dashboard, more than 430 children who are in the state’s foster care system are currently in out-of-state care, although living arrangements may change over the course of the time a child is in the system. This means a child may be moved from a shelter, into kinship care, sent out of state and or returned throughout the time they are in the system.

While the majority of children who are in the foster care system are not currently in an out-of-state facility, this does not necessarily mean they have never been placed in one.