DHHR asks for more funding for child care
CHARLESTON — As legislators work to pass legislation to reform the child welfare system in the state, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources is requesting more funding to better serve the vulnerable children in their care.
The department presented its budget to the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday, shedding light on some of the biggest issues facing West Virginia.
The fiscal year 2020 budget for DHHR is more than $6.2 billion, with 66 percent of that coming from federal revenue and 21 percent, or $1.3 billion, from the state’s general revenue.
The department has taken $321 million in cuts over the past six years and is asking for a portion of that back in supplemental appropriations to support child welfare, the Office of Medical Cannabis and the state’s free health clinics, including Ebenezer Medical Outreach in Huntington.
The largest supplemental request is for the child welfare system, which is in crisis and directly linked to the opioid epidemic, DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch said. The department is requesting $23.9 million. Combined with improvement funding, the child welfare system totals about $64 million.
The department spent $296 million on child welfare in 2018, and by 2024 they expect that number to rise to over $400 million.
There has been a 67 percent increase in the number of children in the state’s care since 2013, said Jeremiah Samples, deputy secretary of DHHR, with a total of 7,210 children currently in the state’s care. The majority, 43 percent, are between the ages of 0 and 5, while 28 percent are between the ages of 12 and 17.
With 2,122 foster families with placements, the state still has a proportionally high number of children being placed in institutions. The national average is 11 percent, while 17 percent of children in care in West Virginia are in institutions, both in and out of state.
The aim of the federal Family First Prevention Services Act is to move away from reliance on institutions. Samples said the department is already working to bring as many children in out-of-state placements back home, and the hope is Family First will allow more services to allow children to go back to their families, thus opening up a spot in state for a child placed out of state. The issue is currently there are either not enough spots for children to be placed in state or the state does not provide the adequate services for the specific child, such as young women who survived sexual assault, Samples said.
“Even bad parents are loved by their kids,” Samples said. “If you remove a child from bad parents, that’s still a trauma for that child. If we can prevent that child from having to be removed by teaching that parent who has never been taught how to be a parent given their own history, we save a child from a trauma and all the downstream consequences of that.”
Crouch said the department is also working to strengthen Child Protective Services, which he said is the foundation of child welfare. CPS workers were given an additional 2 percent raise on top of the 5 percent given to all state workers, and Crouch said he plans to give an additional 3 percent this year on top of the 5 percent legislative leaders have promised state employees. This supplemental will be a little more than $660,000.
Fifty additional CPS workers have been added throughout the state, Crouch said, by moving other positions within DHHR to CPS.
Filling vacancies within the department overall continues to be an issue, mainly due to DHHR’s inability to compete with private sector salaries, Crouch said. There are 1,200 vacancies, the most being in child welfare with 212 vacancies.
The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner is also struggling to fill vacancies. Despite a booming caseload of about 26 cases a day, staff for the office has not increased, again due to low salaries. West Virginia has the lowest pay for forensic pathologists in the country, Crouch said. He plans to change classifications to increase salaries.
The department is requesting $2.9 million in improvement funding for the medical examiner.
DHHR will continue to focus on the opioid epidemic, which fuels all of the issues presented. Crouch said again he believes Gov. Jim Justice’s treatment to workforce training plan, “Jim’s Dream,” is an innovative idea and will give hope to many.
Crouch said he also wants to put more of a focus on obesity prevention and tobacco education, two categories where West Virginia ranks low nationally. He said there are four times as many tobacco-related deaths in the state than opioid-related deaths.
He wants to dedicate $2 million to fund initiatives in those areas.
DHHR will give its budget presentation to the House of Delegates’ Finance Committee next week.
Follow reporter Taylor Stuck on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.