Emily Rice Published

New Information System Aims To Ease Fostering In W.Va.

A laptop copmputer with a pair of hands typing on it are shown from above on a black background. In white surrounding the computer, are illustrations of data collection.
During the recent regular session, legislators passed a bill aimed at improving foster care communication and accountability.
Photo Illustration by Tierney/Adobe Stock

During the recent regular session, legislators passed a bill aimed at improving foster care communication and accountability.

House Bill 4975 incorporates foster and kinship parent information systems into the existing Child Welfare Information Technology System.

The bill was the product of two foster parents serving in the West Virginia House of Delegates, Del. Adam Burkhammer, R-Lewis County, and Del. Jonathan Pinson, R-Mason County.

Pinson said they were both elected to the House of Delegates four years ago and have been working to pass this bill since then.

“We immediately found common ground in wanting to improve the current West Virginia foster care system, and the opportunity for folks to help as foster parents and if they choose to adopt out of our foster care crisis,” Pinson said.

Burkhammer said the complex foster care system, combined with Child Protective Services (CPS) investigations and court orders can be intimidating for potential foster parents.

“All of that can be a little overwhelming, and trying to cross-communicate between all of them can be a struggle,” Burkhammer said. “The communication is lacking, so as a parent, you just start to get a little frustrated and feeling in the dark.”

This new communication system will work as an electronic hub for all information on the child’s case.

Pinson said he believes the communication breakdown is no one’s fault, just a symptom of an overburdened system.

“Everybody involved in these children’s cases, are doing their very best and are working really hard,” Pinson said. “But communication among several stakeholders who are all busy, who are all maxed with their caseloads and workloads, just proves to be very, very difficult.”

Burkhammer said access to medical records, in particular, can be vital for a child’s health and well-being in the foster care system.

“When they come into our care, we’re not sure where they’ve been going to the doctor, what medications are they taking, and all of those things,” Burkhammer said. “We also wanted to bring in the health aspect of it, just to give parents the ability to be able to care for the children and make sure everybody’s healthy and safe at the end of the day.”

Pinson said West Virginia leads the nation in the number of children who are currently in state custody per capita. There are more than 6,000 children in West Virginia state care. He said he believes any family who is willing to foster or adopt should have access to information and a smooth transition.

“When a family is willing to open their home and allow these children into their home, we believe that they ought to receive excellent support around their decision to try to help,” Pinson said. “What we find is many times families are less frustrated because they have a child come into their home or children, multiple children come into their home, and they can’t get basic questions answered.”

Pinson said he wants all foster and adoptive parents to have access to the stakeholders and information of the child in their care immediately. The communication portal approved in the bill allows for a digital space for people involved in the child’s care to communicate quickly and effectively.

“They could post this question, they could post this concern or this emergency,” Pinson said. “And everyone involved with that child’s case would see it immediately and get an immediate notification. And then that way, the attorneys who need to know that information, they get it at the same time that the CPS worker gets it, at the same time that the child placing agency worker gets it.”

If you are going to take a foster child out of the state, for example on vacation, Pinson said the foster parent has to ask permission. 

“Well, I know families who have had to cancel the family vacation because no one was able to respond to their vacation request in a timely fashion,” Pinson said. “Well, that’s just inappropriate, we can’t have that.”

The bill faced some pushback from lawmakers who were concerned for the children’s privacy and access to confidential records. Burkhammer said the second hurdle for the bill was an overwhelmed CPS staff.

“We were going to create a whole new system and require that the courts and require the placing agencies and require the CPS workers to log in and input information,” Burkhammer said. “And everybody said, ‘Hey, don’t give me one more thing that I’ve got to do. I’m already overwhelmed. We’re understaffed.’ That’s what we have created in this language in the bill that says to reduce redundancy. We’re talking about being able to pull information that they’re already inputting.”

Burkhammer said he wishes the legislature had been able to pass a pay raise for guardian ad litems, lawyers who represent children in court.

“Currently, we’ve only got about 159 guardian ad litems for over 6,000 kids right now, give or take in the foster care system, under the state’s control at this point,” Burkhammer said. “We’re severely overworking our guardian ad litem who are representing these children in the court cases. We’ve got to tackle that situation.”

Both delegates agree the key to fixing all the pervasive issues is communication.

“The problem is we’re just dealing with people, real people, real lives, real problems,” Pinson said. “I believe most anything in life can be solved if proper communication takes place. This bill points everybody involved to the importance of proper communication.”

Pinson said West Virginia’s system isn’t broken, it is just overwhelmed and this bill is an effort to ease that workload, not point any accusing fingers.

“It’s not that our CPS workers just simply don’t care,” Pinson said. “They do care. They care so much that they’re willing to try to make this their livelihood, their life. We have excellent CPS workers, we have excellent child placing agency workers through our foster agencies throughout West Virginia. But there’s just an overwhelming number of people who need the services. And everybody’s caseload is just maxed.”

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