By Matt Young, WV Press Association
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The State Legislature’s Joint Committee on Children and Families, on Tuesday, heard testimony from human service professionals, on topics ranging from adult healthcare, to the state’s foster care system.
Legislative Healthcare Advisor Jeremiah Samples was first to address the committee, and provided an overview of the Department of Human Services – specifically how it relates to the forthcoming reorganization of the Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR).
Samples began his presentation with a question: “Why did the legislature reorganize DHHR?”
“Statistically we’ve had decades of failed outcomes,” Samples said. “It’s not blamed on any single individual – these are systemic, long term issues that the state has faced. There’s also been a number of issues around conflicts of interest between regulatory and service agencies.”
“Lots of bureaucracy within the department,” Samples continued. “Budget obstacles preventing the legislature from setting priorities. There were a number of different issues.”
According to Samples, the legislature’s goals with the reorganization are “in line” with the problems experienced by the DHHR. The existing DHHR will be divided into three separate departments: the Department of Health, the Department of Human Services, and the Department of Health Facilities. The new departments will be formally enacted in Jan. 2024.
“(The legislature’s plan) was really aimed at restructuring without adding a bunch of additional cost,” Samples added.
Commissioner Jeff Pack of the W.Va. Bureau of Social Services was next to present, and spoke about the needs of Adult Services.
“It is the mission of Adult Services to provide support and services to vulnerable adults,” Pack told the committee, before listing the six divisions of the agency.
According to Pack, Adult Services is comprised of Adult Family Care Homefinding, Adult Residential Services, Adult Protective Services, Homeless Services, Substitute Decision-maker Services, and Unclaimed Deceased Adult Bodies Services.
“Adult family care providers continue to decrease,” Pack said. “In April 2020, there were 126 open adult family care providers. In April 2023, there were only 103.”
Pack added that there are currently 90 assisted living facilities that accept DHHR subsidies.
Next before the committee was Director James Jeffries of the Bureau of Maternal, Child, and Family Health, to speak about the W.Va. Mothers and Babies Support Program. Jeffries began by advising the committee that the support program will become active on June 7 of this year.
“For the administration of the program, the [legislature] requires the Bureau for Public Health to contract with a national agency that exclusively promotes and supports child birth,” Jeffries said, before adding that the Bureau plans to release their plan for selecting said national agency some time in May.
The day’s final speaker was Dianna Canifax, with Foster to Adoption Parents.
“I am a mental health therapist for kids,” Canifax said. “I work with kids professionally and personally in my life providing play-therapy. It’s been a very helpful mindset to have when I have these kids in my home.”
Canifax and her husband currently have two biological children, and one foster child. Thier intention is to foster the child until such time as they are able to formalize an adoption. However, their current foster child is not their first experience with the state’s foster system.
“We started this journey in 2021,” Canifax continued. “We got certified, and got our first call for our little one in December. She was about seven-months old. All we knew was that she was in the hospital having a procedure.”
According to Canifax, the child was suffering from a genetic disorder which manifested as breathing issues. After spending five months in the Canifax home, the child began suffering from seizures.
“The biggest issue we had was how she was removed from our home,” Canifax told the committee. “Obviously reunification is always the front runner of what we try to do – we do want to keep kids with their parents.”
“(The baby’s) parents had court on a Friday,” Canifax noted. “On Saturday, CPS said, ‘We’re reunifying.’ On Monday they picked her up and moved her back into the home (with biological parents). She had only seen her parents in the past several weeks for two hours. The mom had told the workers that she had no attachment to the child, and mom did not know that she’d had seizures or what medications she was on.”
“We were not a part of that process to safely place this child back in her home,” Canifax added. “We were a little traumatized.”
Canifax stressed that it is the lack of information and transparency throughout the foster process which she finds the most troubling.
The Joint Committee on Children and Families will next meet during May’s Interim Legislative Session in Huntington.