A committee has been formed in the West Virginia Senate to focus on upcoming legislation related to child welfare.
The Senate Select Committee on Children and Families, whose formation was announced Wednesday, will be led by Kanawha County Republican and Senate Majority Leader Tom Takubo.
The committee will focus on issues related to the state’s ongoing foster care crisis and substance abuse epidemic, the Senate said in a news release.
The state’s foster ranks have swelled to about 7,000 children as the state grapples with the opioid crisis. West Virginia leads the nation by far in the rate of drug overdose deaths.
The statement cited a recent legislative audit that found the Department of Health and Human Resources’ Child Protective Services did not meet a required time frame for investigating child abuse and neglect allegations in 50 percent of cases in fiscal year 2018.
In addition, Child Protective Services continues to experience high turnover, while the drug epidemic has increased CPS worker caseloads by 79 percent since 2015.
The committee was formed because legislation on child welfare issues otherwise would have had to compete with dozens of other bills if they had been channeled through other committees.
“Our children are our state’s most precious resource, and it’s clear that despite our best efforts, we are falling way short in adequately providing for the needs of the ones who need us the most,” Senate President Carmichael said. “My hope with this new Select Committee is that the members take a deep dive on these issues and work toward the kinds of solutions that will ensure no child in the state of West Virginia gets lost in a bureaucracy that does not put them on the best path to stability, comfort, and self-worth.”
The GOP-controlled legislature began its regular session Wednesday.
Takubo and fellow committee member Ron Stollings, D-Boone, are physicians. The nine-member committee also includes Senate education chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, and Democrat Paul Hardesty, a former board of education chairman in Logan County.
“It brings everything to the forefront,” Takubo said in an interview before the Senate convened Wednesday. “Politics will kind of divide Senate members or House members, but the one thing we’ve always been (in the) loop on is families and children. We’re trying to bring in the resources of the Senate members to look at this as a whole.”
The state also faces a federal class-action lawsuit alleging the foster care system has failed to protect children. The state is seeking to dismiss the suit, brought by nonprofit advocacy groups and a law firm on behalf of a dozen children.
Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Crouch continues to make substantive changes to its system.
The lawsuit describes stories of alleged neglect and harm done to foster children in DHHR’s care. Marcia Lowry, executive director of the nonprofit A Better Childhood, has said the state isn’t doing enough to deal with problems in its foster system.