For Immediate Release: October 12, 2023
Contact: Kelly Allen, (304)-612-4180
Charleston, WV – West Virginia’s child welfare system is in crisis. Currently, the Mountain State places four times as many children per capita in the foster care system as the United States as a whole. West Virginia 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.
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 to help children remain with their families.
The WVCBP’s new report details why improving the child welfare system in West Virginia requires addressing the root causes of hardship for families—often related to disordered substance use and economic insecurity—and provides recommendations for how our state can begin to do so. The report was authored by executive director, Kelly Allen, and child welfare research fellow, Veronica Witikko.
- 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.
- 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.
- Families that experience material financial hardship are three times more likely to be reported for neglect and four times more likely to be reported for abuse.
- 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.
- 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.
- Children who have been involved in the child welfare system have poorer physical health, mental health, educational attainment, and future earning outcomes.
“The issues within our child welfare system are systemic in nature rather than the result of individual moral failings among parents who are struggling. One of the most effective ways to reduce systemic harm is to focus attention and efforts on preventing families from encountering the child welfare system in the first place,” says Witikko. “For West Virginia to better serve families, help children thrive, and reduce the number of children being placed in our foster care system, we must prioritize policy change upstream of the foster care system. Families need supports before they are in crisis.”
Recommendations to Address Root Causes of Hardship
- West Virginia policymakers can tighten the state’s legal standards for abuse and neglect to ensure economic insecurity or substance use are not the sole reasons for removal, and place into code requirements for the state’s child welfare agency to provide economic supports when doing so can keep children at home.
- Policymakers can provide funding and resources to help families overcome material hardships that put them at risk of investigation or child removal.
- West Virginia can increase the number of substance use treatment beds that provide child care, child visitation, and other family-based supports.
- Lawmakers can preserve and expand access to vital family support programs.
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 investing in high-quality, evidence-based programs to reduce and prevent child abuse and neglect. By providing the concrete economic and social supports highlighted above to households broadly, fewer families will become involved in the child welfare system.
You can read the full report here.