The legislative session began earlier this month, as it often has in recent years, with talk of “fixing” West Virginia’s child welfare system. As the drug crisis has soared, our foster care system has seen a steep increase in the number of children it serves— children removed from their homes by the child welfare system. This year, the way the conversation began was particularly gut-wrenching. During an interim committee meeting, we heard the story of a mother in Greenbrier County who had shot and killed her five children and stepchildren before turning the gun on herself. An investigation showed that claims of abuse had been made to various agencies— including child protective services (CPS)— but never followed up on.
It was an awful story and illustrated just how broken the system is. CPS staffing remains at a 27% vacancy rate. Staff can’t keep up with demand. And so, the suggested remedy is better pay and meeting the demand with more employees.
But the problem with the child welfare system isn’t “the” problem. It’s a side effect. A consequence. It’s a focus on the periphery and not the problem in front of us. West Virginia has a child maltreatment problem—a child abuse and neglect problem. It’s fueled by generational poverty and the raging drug crisis we’ve yet to get a handle on. For whatever reason, we lack the social courage to face the problem for what it is. Because of this, we continue to fundamentally mismatch the problem with meaningful policy solutions, and we do this to the detriment of the children who continue to live in unsafe spaces. We talk around it but not about it. More workers and funding prop up and expand the system, but they don’t prevent kids from entering the system in the first place.
These are the hard facts. The National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System reported in 2019 that West Virginia had a rate of 18.7 child victims per 1000. It was the second-highest rate in the country, behind Kentucky. West Virginia also had the fifth-highest rate of child fatalities due to child maltreatment and the highest rate of child victims with a caregiver risk factor of drug abuse. West Virginia has 21 child advocacy centers. This month, they reported that they have served a 40% increase in new children over the last five years.
Accusations of abuse and neglect are serious, and splitting up families is a devastating thing to do, with long-term consequences. Even when parents can reunify with their children, the trauma of investigation and removal can destabilize families for years to come. Race and economic and social status often impact decisions made in the system, from reporting to termination of parental rights. Taking kids from their homes is a very serious business.
Still, we also know that there are children who are not safe in their own homes, like the 4-year-old boy from Fairmont who had been abused by his mom’s boyfriend. CPS workers knew of previous incidents of abuse but failed to follow up on a temporary protection plan. And then, one night, the boyfriend attacked him, and he died shortly after in the hospital. That was less than a year ago. Since then, there’s been a lot of finger-pointing at the parents and CPS. I see posts on social media about locking them all up. I don’t see discussions about our collective responsibility to prevent this kind of abuse in the first place.
It’s easy to ignore the things we don’t want to see, but make no mistake: reform is inevitable. Without public response, political ideology may win over common sense. Over the years, I’ve heard radical ideas about reducing our child maltreatment rates that often either see parents as hapless victims of the system or rotten to the core. Some have recommended increased incarceration and that we bring back orphanages. Others think we should dismantle the system altogether and blame mandated reporters for overreporting. The narratives behind both extremes are inevitably problematic. I’m not a fan of either side. I don’t claim to have the answers to fix our child maltreatment problem or West Virginia’s child welfare system, but I know the first step begins with naming the problem for what it is. It’s not about bad pay or high turnover rates; it’s about social issues that are sad, complex, and hard to face. It’s about taking responsibility to protect our community’s kids. We do that by preventing child maltreatment. Real prevention happens when everyone gets involved. How can we do better? It’s time to get together and talk about it.
Kelli Caseman is the Executive Director of Think Kids, a statewide nonprofit that advocates for the health and well-being of West Virginia’s kids.