The West Virginia Senate leadership has sent a seven page letter to Department of Health and Human Resources Interim Secretary Dr. Jeffrey Coben that details a number of short, intermediate and long term policy changes that focus on improving child welfare outcomes they would like to see implemented.
Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, said the initiatives outlined in the letter come from more than two months of research, data collection, counsel, citizen and specialist input. Blair said former DHHR Deputy Secretary Jeremiah Samples, now senior advisor for the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Government and Finance, was a major contributor to the recommended policy changes.
“The more that we talk about this issue, the more people are sending me emails saying ‘this is wrong, that’s wrong, this is what needs to be done,’” Blair said. “We’re data collectors now piecing it all together to try to come up with short and long term solutions.”
For short-term policy changes, the group recommends increasing Child Protective Services (CPS) workers’ regional pay differential to properly compete with Virginia and Maryland in the Eastern Panhandle. Blair said an immediate 20 percent increase is warranted given the CPS crisis conditions there.
“You end up with two and three times the amount of the work that you do in other areas of the state, but your pay is exactly the same,” Blair said. “The cost of the housing, and the taxes associated with that housing can be double what it is, in say, in Webster County.”
Other short-term policy change suggestions call for transparency with child welfare issues, and reallocation of vacant personal service funding to starting salaries for CPS workers. The letter notes that the previous 15 percent increase, as directed by the governor, applied to only existing workers. Another 10-15 percent should be infused statewide and can come from existing personnel service funds at DHHR.
On an intermediate timeline, the letter asks DHHR to develop a CPS position reallocation plan to prevent underservice in certain counties. The letter notes “Total population can serve as a base level factor in allocations based on current number of CPS staff allocations. For counties that have extraordinary needs, a factor would be incorporated to enhance the base of CPS workers in that county. This proposal would not call for any county to receive less than they currently have without DHHR attesting that such a decrease would not impact services in that county. To make up the difference, additional CPS positions would be added to current totals.”
A recommended policy change would address CPS workers’ caseloads and workloads. Blair said streamlining those duties to individuals with the best ability in a specific area would create better child welfare outcomes.
“It’s no different from having a DMV office, you’ve got 10 windows, you’ve only got two people working those windows, and one of those people is infinitely slower than the other,” Blair said. “The person that you have left is working to the point of wanting to quit and not do their job. The only people that suffer are the ones that are out in the lobby waiting and that’s our children in this instance.”
One proposed policy change mandates a child trauma predictive model, trying to stem a problem before it happens.
“Good governments should be able to predict and anticipate, but you need to have that data, that feedback from where you’re at, and then somebody willing to look at it, and deploy solutions and change,” Blair said.
Other policy change recommendations focus on improving mental health accessibility.
The letter notes: “The West Virginia Legislature and Governor have allocated more funding to health and human resources generally, and child welfare specifically, over the past several years than at any point in West Virginia history. West Virginia must fully explore what funding can be redirected from current allocations to develop child acute mental health infrastructure in communities and sustain it. There must be a mixture of capitalization investment and commitment to the mental health infrastructure long term.”
Blair said there will be legislation introduced in the upcoming regular legislative session to address these needs. The letter notes: “West Virginia’s children and families have suffered from critical failures in the agency you now lead. A lot of work has gone into fixing these problems, but we must have outcomes. We are pleased the Administration has joined the Legislature in realizing the status quo cannot continue and we look forward to working collaboratively on solutions moving forward.”
In his response, DHHR Interim Secretary Coben said he is reviewing the suggestions outlined in the letter from Blair and his leadership team.
“I am deeply appreciative of their outreach and the many recommendations included therein, and will respond promptly,” Coben said. “Many of these recommendations are similar to what our team is reviewing and some are in the process of implementation. I look forward to working collaboratively with the West Virginia Legislature on these critically important issues facing our state.”
Outgoing Sen. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, responded to the Senate letter with his own letter and a statement. He detailed to Coben the challenge and solution to the CPS staffing crisis in his section of the state.
“CPS vacancy rates in my district have ranged from 40-65 percent over the last couple of years,” Baldwin said. “Currently, we have 6 CPS workers on the job and 6 vacant positions. Summers County has 0 CPS workers.”
Coben responded to Baldwin by promising action.
“Having just received Sen. Stephen Baldwin’s letter, a review will be made followed with a prompt and appropriate response,” Coben said. “Our team has been actively working to address concerns related to the child welfare system and will continue to work collaboratively throughout the state to protect our most vulnerable populations.”