Foster Care Summary

Foster care is a service provided for children who, for any of a great number of reasons, must live apart from their own families for planned period of time. Foster care provides a substitute living situation for such children in both foster family homes and in group or institutional care. Two resources or types of foster family care: temporary or permanent, each with its individual and specific function, are available for use in planning and meeting the needs of children being served.

For those children who must be separated from their homes, the agency is charged by law with the responsibility of developing and administering a foster care program. W. Va. Code §49-2-1 states that "It shall be the responsibility of the state department to provide care for neglected children who are committed to its care for custody or guardianship."

This report is a Full Performance Evaluation on Foster Care and Adoption within the Department of Health and Human Resources. This report presents four issues relating to foster care and adoption.

ISSUE AREA 1: The Department of Health and Human Resources Lacks a Management Information System that will Allow it to Monitor Basic Information or Progress of Children in Foster Care and Adoption.

According to a briefing provided by the Department of Health and Human Resources for the Legislative Auditor, "the agency is charged with the responsibility of developing and administering a foster care program." However, in order to manage foster care and adoption, the Department of Health and Human Resources must know where every child is located, the status of their care and their progress toward a permanent home or living arrangement. The appropriate points of progress for children in foster care are laid forth in the Rules of Procedure for Child Abuse and Neglect Proceedings and are based on the W. Va. Code §49-6-1, et seq.

The primary cause of the inability of the Department of Health and Human Resources to properly oversee foster care and adoption is that the information provided by the current management information system (the Social Services Information System or SSIS) is insufficient to monitor guidelines in the W. Va. Code §49-6-1, et seq. as contained in the Rules of Procedure for Child Abuse and Neglect Proceedings.

The Department of Health and Human Resources cannot measure performance without the basic ability to determine how many children are in care, where these children are, or if these children even exist? Without knowing who the children are or where they are, the Department of Health and Human Resources lacks the ability to be accountable for them or to hold case workers accountable for them. Ultimately, children are the ones who incur the greatest cost.

ISSUE AREA 2: Two hundred-fifty eight (258) children legally free for adoption are Waiting to be Transferred to the Adoption Unit.

Chapter 15420 of the Social Service Manual states that "As soon as it is possible to identify a child's need for an adoptive family, a referral of that child must be made to the Adoption Exchange. All new state wards must be referred within thirty (30) days of SSIS legal status change to guardianship." Furthermore, "All children who are currently legally free and appropriate for adoption, must be registered on the Adoption Exchange no later than thirty (30) days of receipt of this manual material.

The Legislative Auditor's sample of cases revealed 14 children were waiting to be transferred to the adoption unit, although full parental rights had already been terminated. Upon further inquiry, the four DHHR adoption supervisors confirmed a total of two hundred fifty- eight children were waiting to be transferred to the adoption units.

The caseload of an adoption worker is controlled by the unit supervisor. These supervisors stated that 15-18 cases is an ideal workload for adoption workers, although most carry more than the ideal. In addition to the low case standard, there are only 13 Adoption workers for the 4 Regions. This means that the foster care worker must continue to monitor the progress of children who are legally free to be adopted. Foster care workers are taking it on themselves to do the job of the adoption worker and find homes for these children, despite the fact that some workers have caseloads of over 30 children and are not trained to do adoptions.

It is difficult for the adoption unit to find adoptive families for children as quickly as possible, when they are not able to take all of the cases. The ability for the DHHR to hire more adoption workers would give more children the chance to get adopted.

ISSUE AREA 3: Courts allow for visitation after the termination of parental rights, robbing the child or children of stability and permanency.

West Virginia Code §49-6-5(6) states "...Upon a finding that there is no reasonable likelihood that the conditions of neglect or abuse can be substantially corrected in the near future, and when necessary for the welfare of the child, terminate parental, custodial or guardianship rights and/or responsibilities of the abusing parent and commit the child ... to the permanent guardianship of the state department or a licensed child welfare agency." According to W. Va. Code §49-6-5 , children "need consistent, close interaction with fully committed adults, and are likely to have their own emotional and physical development retarded by numerous placements."

When termination of parental rights is essential to the well-being of the child, court ordered visitation complicates the permanency plans and confuses the child. Permanent out-of-home placement is achieved only when the child has been placed in a permanent, court-approved, and ratified foster care home, or the child has been adopted or emancipated..W. Va. Code §49-6-2 allows courts to consider continued visitation when parental rights are terminated due to neglect or abuse.

When the judiciary grants visitation after the parents have proven themselves unfit or unable to care for the child, the state has a difficult time placing the child in a stable, permanent living arrangement. Adoptive families are hesitant to become involved with a child when the child has court ordered contact with the perpetrators of abuse or neglect.

ISSUE AREA 4: Six Percent of our Sample of Foster Care Court Orders Reviewed Were Unsigned by the Circuit Court Judge.

The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Services (DHHR) is required to have certain information in each child's case records including; 1) Initial petition seeking DHHR custody; 2) Court order granting DHHR custody and all subsequent petitions and orders; and 3) Voluntary placement agreements and/or voluntary relinquishments.

According to §51-3-4 of the West Virginia Code, the orders of every court shall be signed by the judge and entered as a record. Furthermore, §51-3-4 states, "Courts of record must speak by their records. What is not thereby made to appear does not exist in law...Unless and until the proceedings of a court are recorded and signed as required by this section they can have no force or efficacy whatever."

While reviewing the case files, the Legislative Auditor found that all of the court orders in the files were not signed by the circuit court judge. Of the 2,313 court orders that the Legislative Auditor reviewed, 134 did not have a signed copy in the case files. Possible causes include: (1) DHHR workers are not receiving court orders from the circuit clerk's office; and (2) DHHR workers are not filing the court orders in the case files.

The most serious effect from having unsigned court orders involves possible legal entanglements. Thus, children may be staying in the system longer than necessary, especially ones who are waiting to be adopted.

In addition, DHHR estimates that this amount applied to 421 children at 73% reimbursement rate projected over a 12-month period. If this is correct, the state is losing $5.1 million dollar annually in federal title IV-E funding, due to court orders being completed incorrectly or not signed at all.