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Infographic courtesy Mountain State Spotlight

MSS: WV’s lack of CPS workers means kids don’t get help, and the problem is getting worse

Editor’s note: This story was originally published by Mountain State Spotlight. Get stories like this delivered to your email inbox once a week; sign up for the free newsletter at https://mountainstatespotlight.org/newsletter.

By Amelia Ferrell Knisely, Mountain State Spotlight

Two years ago, Gov. Jim Justice touted his plan to fix the state’s troubled child welfare system. There weren’t enough people, and his proposal to hire 87 new social workers was meant to fill some of those gaps.

But today, West Virginia’s Child Protective Services worker vacancy rate is nearly double what it was when Justice pledged to fix the system. 

The vacancy rate has real-world consequences:  A legislative audit and data from the state Department of Health and Human Resources show that CPS workers routinely don’t investigate reports of alleged child abuse and neglect within the 72-hour period required by state law.

None of this is news to lawmakers. Last month, a legislative committee heard a clear example of what can happen when CPS doesn’t act in a timely manner.

In 2020, Sarah Peters, a Greenbrier County dental hygienist, noticed a large bruise on 4-year-old Kian Myers’ arm. She’d also seen the boy’s father verbally abusing another child in the family in the parking lot. Peters called the state’s abuse and neglect hotline and shared what she’d witnessed. 

“I told [the intake worker]… the child seemed super scared of his dad,” Peters said.

Nothing came of the call, she said. The state sent her a letter dated the same day as her call saying that they wouldn’t investigate the report.

Kian was one of five children killed by his mother on Dec. 8, 2020.

In the same meeting when lawmakers were briefed on the Greenbrier County tragedy, the state agency entrusted with caring for kids in state custody warned of a crisis. 

“[CPS vacancies] are as high as I can remember,” Jeffrey Pack, commissioner of DHHR’s Social Services Bureau, told lawmakers. “I don’t know how we continue to operate at that particular rate.”

But the issue is nothing new. The state has struggled with its CPS vacancy rate for decades, and there are 71% more children in state custody now than there were a decade ago. 

Sam Hickman led West Virginia’s chapter of the National Association of Social Workers from 1985 until his retirement last year. The CPS shortage was an issue through his entire tenure addressing state lawmakers, he said.

“[It] has increased in severity over time,” Hickman said. “Efforts to work with DHHR can be frustrated by periodic changes in administrations and leadership.” 

And as DHHR anticipates another wave of kids into foster care spurred by the pandemic and as the Legislature begins another regular session, the only solution that has been offered so far is a small pay raise that still doesn’t match what bordering states are paying workers for the same difficult job.  

Failing to quickly check on on potentially abused kids

Lawmakers have known for years that CPS worker vacancy rates can affect how often these workers can investigate child abuse cases.

In 2018, an audit shared with lawmakers revealed CPS failed to look into half of the reports of child abuse or neglect in the 72 hours required under state law. From September 2020 to October 2021, no West Virginia county responded to all abuse and neglect calls in a timely manner, according to DHHR data. In Tucker County, CPS responded to just 17% of calls in the required time frame; in Kanawha County, the state’s most populated county, the number was 63%. Pack said the majority of those cases were ones where children were in imminent danger and should have been seen within 72 hours. 

The audit found several reasons why the state has had trouble attracting social workers, including few qualified candidates and low salaries. But even once social workers are hired, it’s hard to retain them in a high-stress job with an increased caseload. 

In December, Pack, who served in the Legislature from 2018 to 2021, told lawmakers that state CPS workers were failing to promptly investigate abuse and neglect calls made by teachers, health care workers, neighbors and more. Pack did not comment in that meeting on the Greenbrier County incident discussed in that same legislative meeting, and he declined an interview for this story.

State reduced requirements for social workers

West Virginia lawmakers had already lowered the requirements to become a CPS worker in 2015, in an effort to recruit social workers. At that time, the state had some of the lowest requirements in the country to practice social work — a job that includes making decisions on child removals. Lawmakers again in 2020 reduced the requirements to be a social worker, against the recommendation of the West Virginia chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. 

But those efforts haven’t filled the state’s open CPS positions in the long run. By the middle of 2020, the vacancy rate was down to 14%, but has climbed since then after Justice added the 87 new positions.

The state’s social worker vacancy sits at 27% as of November 2021, according to DHHR. In some counties, it’s even higher: more than half of Marion County’s CPS positions were unfilled, and the vacancy rate was nearly half in multiple counties.

Though the two didn’t always correlate, in many counties there was an overlap between low staffing and failure to promptly make face-to-face contact with a child.

Pack pointed to the increased caseloads on every state social worker.

“If you’re a CPS worker and you’re ordinarily supposed to have 12 cases, now you’ve got 24,” he said.

The ongoing CPS shortage was also a contributing factor in the lack of social worker visits to children in foster homes, as Mountain State Spotlight reported in September

CPS pay bump planned as prevention goes underfunded 

Now, lawmakers are banking on an upcoming 5% pay raise to help fill more of the state’s vacant CPS jobs. 

“I’m hopeful a pay raise, as part of other legislative efforts this year, will help to begin closing the enormous gap we have in our Child Welfare Services,” House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, said. “These workers are asked to care for our state’s most vulnerable populations, their responsibilities are tremendous and we simply cannot tolerate a double-digit vacancy rate among those employees.”

But even with the 5% pay bump, all neighboring states except Pennsylvania will still pay social workers more than West Virginia.

Molly Arbogast, current president of the state’s social workers association, said that along with pay raises, the group has consistently asked the state for better working conditions, including safety measures and trauma support. 

There’s another solution that lawmakers haven’t considered as well, according to Jim McKay, who has led Prevent Child Abuse WV since 2005: prioritizing child abuse prevention as a part of reducing CPS caseloads, which contribute to the high turnover rate in the job.

“West Virginia has not increased its investment in prevention programs in over a decade,” he said. “Many lawmakers think [CPS] reporting is how you prevent child abuse.”

West Virginia has failed to adequately fund or renew programs that have been successful in keeping kids out of foster care. And where programs are up and running, there are long waiting lists or programs vary from county to county.

Prevention efforts look like home visits to offer support, rather than investigations, as well as available substance abuse treatment and community programs that help families thrive, McKay explained.

West Virginia has the nation’s highest rate of children who are investigated by CPS, but McKay warned that the number wasn’t an indication of actual abuse. Rather, the high volume was an indication that mandated reporters, like teachers and medical professionals, did not always know how to connect families with help.

“What a family often needs is help – not an investigation,” McKay said.

Reach reporter Amelia Ferrell Knisely at ameliaknisely@mountainstatespotlight.org.

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