Emily Rice Published

W.Va.’s First Foster Care Ombudsman Resigns

A brunette woman with highlights, wearing a white shirt and white sweater, speaks from behind a wooden podium.
West Virginia Foster Care Ombudsman Pamela Woodman-Kaehler addresses the Senate Health Committee on Feb. 15, 2024.
Will Price/WV Legislative Photography

The first West Virginia Foster Care Ombudsman, Pamela Woodman-Kaehler, will resign effective June 6 to pursue new opportunities.

“We very much appreciate Pamela’s work over the years and her passion for serving the children of this state,” said Ann Urling, interim inspector general for the Departments of Health, Human Services, and Health Facilities. ”We wish her well in all of her future endeavors.” 

Elizabeth Hardy will serve as the acting office director foster care ombudsman in her place.

“It has been an incredible honor and pleasure to serve the citizens of West Virginia as the state’s first foster care ombudsman. I am choosing to pursue a new opportunity, but the program is exceptionally well positioned to serve our foster care system,” said Woodman-Kaehler. “I extend grateful thanks to department leaders and other stakeholders who have supported the important work of the foster care ombudsman.”

The foster care ombudsman, a position allowed for by legislation passed in 2019 and 2020, advocates for the rights of foster children, investigates and resolves complaints, and provides assistance to foster families, among other responsibilities.

Since then, lawmakers have been expanding the scope and independence of the Foster Care Ombudsman’s Office.

In 2023, House Bill 3061 was passed, permitting the foster care ombudsman to investigate reported allegations of abuse and neglect for critical incidents and to investigate children placed in the juvenile justice system. Previously, the ombudsman could only investigate complaints involving a foster child, foster parents or kinship parents.

Kelli Caseman, executive director of Think Kids WV, a statewide advocacy group focused on the health and well-being of West Virginia’s children, was one of the advocates pushing for the creation of an ombudsman.

Bills to further clarify the foster care ombudsman’s authority regarding child abuse and neglect investigations did not pass during the 2024 legislative session.

“I think that she really has given a voice to families, you know, of course, kids don’t have that opportunity to share their concerns, their challenges, their trauma. We are rightfully protective of their personal information,” Caseman said. “But so they really don’t have a voice, and we often find that their parents don’t have that voice either, and so Pamela really gave a voice and a platform to some of these challenges.”

Woodman-Kaehler’s resignation garnered praise for her work ethic in a difficult field but left some wondering if the ombudsman is encumbered by outside influences.

News of Woodman-Kaehler’s resignation broke less than a week after an April deposition of former deputy secretary of the previous Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR), Jeremiah Samples, was made public.

The deposition was conducted in connection with a 2019 class action lawsuit, filed by A Better Childhood (ABC), a New York-based nonprofit, along with Shafer and Shafer and Disability Rights West Virginia against the now-split DHHR.

Marcia Robinson Lowry, the lead plaintiff for the class, and executive director of A Better Childhood, said she has been interested in interviewing Samples since his departure from the department.

“We took his deposition and we expected that we would get this kind of information,” Lowry said. “We didn’t know exactly what we would get, of course. But we were not surprised to get this kind of information.”

The lawsuit alleges the DHHR failed to properly care for thousands of foster kids, putting some in dangerous and unsafe situations.

In the original court filing, the plaintiffs allege, “Children in West Virginia’s foster care system have been abused and neglected, put in inadequate and dangerous placements, institutionalized and segregated from the outside world, left without necessary services, and forced to unnecessarily languish in foster care for years.”

The group filed a complaint in federal court in October 2019, denouncing the DHHR’s “over-reliance” on shelter care, shortages in case workers and a “failure to appropriately plan for the children in its custody.”

The following year, a motion for class action status was filed but left undecided when the case was dismissed in 2021. In 2022, that decision was reversed by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals and the class action motion was renewed in May 2023.

“It’s been delayed twice, because of the defendants failing to produce materials to us,” Lowry said. “So it is going forward, and the trial will be in November.”

In the deposition, Samples, who is now senior advisor to the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Government and Finance, testified that the Department of Human Services (DoHS) was not providing certain information to the Foster Care Ombudsman’s Office.

“There was an effort in 2023, through legislation, to accomplish that (investigative access for the ombudsman),” Samples said. “It was then stated by the ombudsman that they were still not being provided access because of a discussion or because of a position by Ms. [Cammie] Chapman.”

Samples testified that in early 2024, he learned that Deputy Secretary of Children and Adult Services Cammie Chapman was not providing investigative data to the ombudsman, due to the department’s interpretation of House Bill 3061.

“It was relayed that it was the interpretation of the department and Ms. Chapman that the ombudsman would not have access to that information,” Samples said.

Furthermore, Samples testified that the ombudsman had to contend with the previous DHHR secretary, Bill Crouch, who retired in 2022. He recalled a conversation with the ombudsman during the deposition.

“She said that she was called in to Secretary Crouch’s office,” Samples said. “And I don’t recall specifically how she worded it. But the tone of the conversation was that it was a threat, to be very careful about conversations that she had with the legislature and documents that she would release.”

Legal Director of Disability Rights West Virginia Mike Folio praised Woodman-Kaehler’s work but called her resignation a failure of the department.

“The resignation of Pamela Woodman-Kaehler is a sad chapter in DHHR’s and DoHS’ failed history to protect vulnerable children,” Folio said. “Sworn testimony exists that shows former DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch and current DoHS Deputy Secretary Cammie Chapman have meddled in the foster care ombudsman’s affairs, directed her to conceal information from the legislature, and withheld information from her that would have enabled her to conduct investigations to protect the state’s vulnerable children. Pam is a champion for children and her resignation highlights the state’s failure to safeguard children.”

Samples testified that he and Woodman-Kaehler also discussed shortfalls in the Child Protective Services (CPS) system. He said topics of conversation included CPS not properly conducting investigations and CPS case workers not being prepared in court.

“There would be a referral to centralized intake and concerns that these referrals were being screened out inappropriately,” Samples said. “For example, I recall specifically talking to her about the percentage of cases that were being investigated historically. So you go back to 2017, for example, there might have been 67, 69 percent of all referrals investigated. And now, I think the last time I saw the data, it was 60 point something percent.”

Samples also testified that the ombudsman found that there was fear of retaliation by CPS workers. He said he’s received similar complaints, “as recently as this week,” in the April 18, 2024 deposition.

“There were certainly reports at the time that CPS workers were using their authority to retaliate against foster parents, biological families,” Samples said. “And those concerns continue to be reported through constituent referrals to me at the legislature.”

Caseman said Woodman-Kaehler prepared a report for the legislature in 2021, documenting these findings.

“That (report) explained that over 90 percent of the people who called her office, either primary or secondary reason was out of fear of retaliation of the system, which really opened a lot of eyes, that there needs to be more transparency and more effort to ensure that our foster care families, our biological families, families that are transitioning through the child welfare system are treated with, you know, compassion and respect,” Caseman said.

During his weekly media briefing, Gov. Jim Justice addressed Woodman-Kaehler’s resignation.

“She got a better job, guys,” Justice said. “I mean, that’s all there is to it. You know, I mean, this business of attacking people and everything and … digging into everything coming and going. I mean, if she’s telling us she got a better job, you know, and why don’t we celebrate that?”

Justice brought up Sample’s deposition and said “this” all started with Crouch’s firing of Samples.

“From what I understand, Bill Crouch and Jeremiah Samples were butting heads,” Justice said. “Jeremiah Samples was the second in charge. He was in charge, the second man in charge here for a decade plus. And now he runs through the building saying everything in the world was wrong? Why didn’t he fix it? Why in the world didn’t he fix it? If something was wrong?”

Justice said he thinks everyone who works in the West Virginia government is doing their best.

“I really think for the most part, these people surely got their heart in and are trying really hard and they don’t deserve, you know, to be beat on,” Justice said.

According to the West Virginia Child Welfare Dashboard, there are 6,094 children in state care.

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