Blog Posts > Moving Upstream: Improving Child Welfare in West Virginia Requires Addressing Root Causes of Hardship
October 12, 2023

Moving Upstream: Improving Child Welfare in West Virginia Requires Addressing Root Causes of Hardship

Please note, this report was co-authored by WVCBP executive director, Kelly Allen, and WVCBP child welfare summer research fellow, Veronica Witikko.


Read the full report here.

West Virginia’s future depends on our ability as a state to nurture the health and well-being of the next generation of West Virginians—our children. Essential to that goal is building supports and investing in high-quality, evidence-based programs to reduce and prevent child abuse and neglect. That means supporting families before they are in crisis. 

Currently, West Virginia places four times as many children per capita in the foster care system as the United States as a whole. The Mountain State permanently terminates parental rights faster and more often than any other state in the country. While the child welfare system is designed to protect children, foster care involvement can have harmful effects on children and their families. Separating children from their families is a traumatic event for everyone involved and can lead to toxic stress for children, attachment problems, and feelings of loss and grief. 

Recognizing the trauma of separation and the important bonds that children share with their families, federal law requires states to enact reasonable efforts through services and supports to preserve and reunify families. However, West Virginia’s high per capita rates of children in foster care and the frequency and speed with which parental rights are terminated suggest that our state is falling short of its obligation to make reasonable efforts and help children remain with their families. 

Child welfare system involvement is strongly associated with economic insecurity and cumulative material hardship. In fact, the majority of families investigated by Child Protective Services (CPS) are low-income, and most children entering foster care in West Virginia are removed at least in part due to parental disordered substance use or neglect. Both are systemic challenges that can be addressed more effectively through policies and programs that promote economic security, prevent and treat substance use disorder, and help build family protective factors. 

Effective research-based prevention approaches help strengthen families, reduce parental stressors, prevent child maltreatment, and help children thrive. Unfortunately, state and national child welfare systems historically have been reactive rather than proactive, primarily providing economic and social supports to children only after they have entered foster care rather than supporting biological families while the child is still in the home, which can prevent the hardship chain reaction and avoid child welfare involvement entirely. 

Research shows there are more effective approaches to addressing child maltreatment, like providing prevention services earlier— before child abuse or neglect occurs in the first place. These include universally available interventions, not just resources for children once they enter foster care, including family strengthening programs that build protective factors and policies that provide concrete economic supports for families. Robust economic supports that can reduce child maltreatment and, in some cases, speed up family reunification include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Child Tax Credits (CTC), Earned Income Tax Credits (EITC), and others. 

Key Findings

  • West Virginia places the most children in foster care of any state in the country, with four times as many children in foster care per capita as the United States as a whole. West Virginia’s rate of 13.0 children in foster care per 1,000 children is nearly double that of the next highest state, Alaska, at 7.4 per 1,000 children. 
  • In 2021, 2.2 percent of all children nationwide who entered foster care were from West Virginia despite the state only having 0.5 percent of the total US population. 
  • The number of children in foster care in West Virginia increased by 57 percent between 2012 and 2021, while the state’s overall population declined by four percent. 
  • West Virginia permanently terminates parental rights more often than any other state, at a speed nearly 40 percent faster than the national average. 
  • Families of color are disproportionately impacted by child welfare system involvement. The rate of foster care entry per 1,000 children in West Virginia is 14.6 for Black children, 22.0 for children of two or more races, and 13.6 for white children. 
  • The majority of children who enter foster care placements do so, at least in part, because of parental substance abuse or neglect, both of which are correlated with poverty and can often be addressed through social and economic supports rather than drastic family separation measures. 
  • Families that experience material financial hardship are three times more likely to be reported for neglect and four time more likely to be reported for abuse. 
  • West Virginia has not enacted state-level, refundable Child Tax Credits or Earned Income Tax Credits, despite studies showing the impact of these credits on reducing child welfare involvement. 
  • West Virginia continues to place 44 percent more children in group homes and institutions than the rest of the country, despite recent progress in reducing those numbers as the result of an agreement with the US Department of Justice (DOJ). 
  • West Virginia has some of the harshest TANF sanctions in the nation, despite a growing body of research confirming that reductions in access to TANF are associated with child welfare involvement. 
  • Children who have been involved in the child welfare system have poorer physical health, mental health, educational attainment, and future earning outcomes. 

Access the full report here.

Donate Today!
Icon with two hands to donate today.

Help Us Make West Virginia a Better Place to Live

Subscribe Today!
Icon to subscribe.

Follow Our Newsletter to Stay Up to Date on Our Progress