Bad priorities | Legislators pile more neglect on vulnerable kids | Editorials

The following editorial appeared in The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia, a CNHI newspaper. It does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Times-News.

Just as soon as anything that the Legislature did in a two-day special session called by Gov. Jim Justice heals any well-publicized problem out here on the ground and moves our state forward, we’ll let you know. Just don’t hold your breath.

On Tuesday, legislators wrapped up their work — if you want to call it that — by passing a bill that sets up a $600 million economic development fund. No, none of that money is meant for regular citizens, small businesses, cities or towns of West Virginia, but for big-time industrialists — typically from out of state — who have millions if not billions in the bank and are just looking for a little extra free money, to the tune of $50 million in taxpayer dollars, as an incentive to set up shop here in the Mountain State.

Meanwhile, a foster care bill that would have addressed serious deficiencies in the state’s troubled care of often neglected, unwanted and at-risk children were left off the “to-do” list for this session.

And that tells you everything you need to know about the priorities and motivations of this group of legislators.

The foster care bill, House Bill 4344, had received strong support from both sides of the political aisle during the regular session. And why not.

At one point in the sausage making process, the well-intentioned bill provided extra pay for social services workers and a dashboard meant to provide more information about the foster care system.

The state’s foster care system, about to crack under the weight of the state’s nonsupport and some 7,000 kids often being moved from one home to another, faces two key shortages: There are too few Child Protective Service (CPS) workers and there aren’t enough foster families. As such, the state does not have enough trained, responsible and caring employees to check regularly on the safety and well-being of the kids.

We all know what happens then. We end up with the case of Raylee JoLynn Browning, an 8-year-old Oak Hill girl who died the day after Christmas 2018. At the time of her death, Browning had bruising, burns and lacerations on her body, and a torn rectum , police documents detail.

Nicholas County teachers had made multiple referrals to Child Protective Services (CPS) out of concern for Raylee, but it remains unclear if CPS had opened a case on the child.

But it’s not just Raylee. There are others and there will be more.

Why?

DHHR’s own employees have documented communication problems between agency workers and foster parents. As reported by Mountain State Spotlight (MSS) last fall, Pamela Woodman-Kaehler, a foster care ombudsman, reported that “communication complaints are pervasive.” As MSS reported, “those include foster parents, attorneys and biological parents saying CPS workers won’t call or text them back, and reports of CPS workers not delivering on promised visits and resources.”

Raylee died of apparent neglect and abuse — and there was no one from the state there to shield her from the storm of abuse.

Sen. Stephen Baldwin from Greenbrier County wrote in a letter to Senate President Craig Blair, “It is simply unacceptable that we did not pass any foster legislation during the session to improve our care system, and to repeat this error truly demonstrates our misplaced priorities.”

He is correct.

Baldwin continued, “I urge you to look at the priorities we are setting as a body and weigh whether or not they are responsive to the needs of our people.”

With nearly one in five West Virginia children living in poverty and more of its kids affected by opioids than any other state, with the highest number of kids in foster care per capita than any other state, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, with Nearly two-thirds of the kids in foster care 10 or younger and with fresh data showing overdose deaths higher today than they were a year ago, you would think that our legislators would find some urgency in dealing with a problem that has only been allowed to fester.

Because of their negligence — yes, our legislators really do not care for our children as they say they profess on the trail and, as such, they are part of the problem — more children will be abused, physically and sexually, more kids will be neglected and, most horribly, more kids will die.

But, thanks to the work of our legislators, some deep-pocketed industrialist will have the road to West Virginia paved with your tax dollars.

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