Blog Posts > Welcome to the Team, Tamaya!
June 21, 2024

Welcome to the Team, Tamaya!

The WVCBP is excited to welcome Tamaya Browder to the team as our education policy fellow! 

Tamaya was born and raised in Georgia and holds a B.S. in health promotion and behavior from the University of Georgia and a Master of Public Health from Georgia Southern University. Before joining the Center, Tamaya worked in public health settings in Georgia and Texas delivering programs to improve community health and wellbeing. She is currently obtaining her Doctor of Public Health from Georgia Southern University and is passionate about achieving health equity through collaborative policies across sectors. In her free time, she enjoys reading, cooking, and crafting. 

We asked Tamaya a few questions to give her the opportunity to share about herself. Check out her answers below.

What aspect of your work at the WVCBP are you most looking forward to?

I’m looking forward to expanding the Center’s education activities to advance the state of public education in West Virginia. I hope to positively impact all West Virginians that engage with the public education system including students, families, and school personnel.

What are you most proud of regarding your work prior to joining the WVCBP?

I’m most proud of my time conducting community outreach and education to explore vaccine hesitancy and increase COVID-19 vaccine uptake in rural Georgia. I was able to help community members make informed decisions regarding their vaccination status and learn ways that governmental agencies can build trust with and better serve our communities.

What are three fun facts you would like to share with our supporters?

  1. I love to read science fiction and fantasy. The Legacy of Orisha and Harry Potter are my two favorite book series.
  2. I love superhero movies. Black Panther and the Batman are my current favorites.
  3. I was born and raised in Milledgeville, Georgia which once served as the state capital of Georgia. 

West Virginia Ranks 44th in Overall Child Well-being But Makes Strides in Health Metrics in 2024 KIDS COUNT Data Book

West Virginia improved its children’s health ranking compared with recent years, coming in at 35th among the states according to the 2024 KIDS COUNT® Data Book, a 50-state report of recent data developed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation analyzing how kids are faring in post-pandemic America. The data show the importance of policy in improving child health, with just three percent of West Virginia children lacking health insurance in 2022, amid pandemic-era continuous coverage Medicaid and CHIP rules and the most recent year of data available. 

West Virginia ranked 44th in overall child well-being, ranking near the bottom of states in indicators of economic well-being (47th) and education (48th). The Data Book highlights the link between poverty and trauma and educational outcomes. In West Virginia, 45 percent of children face one or more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) compared with 40 percent of children nationwide. Thirty-five percent of West Virginia children were chronically absent from school during the 2021-22 school year, worse than the national average of 30 percent of children. 

It’s important to note that the state averages mask disparities that affect students of color, kids in immigrant families, children in foster care, and children from low-income families or attending low-income schools.

“The Data Book reinforces the importance of policy decisions on the well-being of West Virginia’s children, particularly as we deal with the ongoing impacts of the pandemic,” said Kelly Allen, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, West Virginia’s member of the KIDS COUNT network. “State and federal policymakers have prioritized child and family health during and following the pandemic, and our health indicators have slowly improved as a result. On the other hand, policies that would increase economic stability and improve educational outcomes for all children have not adequately been prioritized. West Virginia’s policymakers must recognize the inherent link between poverty and educational outcomes to truly address the needs of our state’s children and families.” 

In its 35th year of publication, the KIDS COUNT® Data Book focuses on students’ lack of basic reading and math skills, a problem that has been decades in the making but has been highlighted by the focus on learning loss during the COVID-19 pandemic. Unprecedented drops in learning from 2019 to 2022 amounted to decades of lost progress. Chronic absence has soared, with children living in poverty especially unable to resume their school day routines on a regular basis. 

Each year, the Data Book presents national and state data from 16 indicators in four domains — economic well-being, education, health, and family and community factors — and ranks the states according to how children are faring overall.

Key findings from the 2024 Data Book include troubling increases in the percentage of fourth graders not proficient in reading and eighth graders not proficient in math at both the state and national levels. 

  • In 2022, fewer than one in four West Virginia fourth graders (22 percent) were proficient in reading, compared with 30 percent prior to the pandemic (2019). Nationally 32 percent of fourth graders met proficiency benchmarks.
  • In 2022, only 15 percent of West Virginia eighth graders were proficient in math, compared with 24 percent prior to the pandemic (2019). Nationally, 26 percent of eighth graders met proficiency benchmarks.
  • West Virginia saw an increase in the amount of three- and four-year olds not in school, up from 64 percent prior to the pandemic to 71 percent in 2022.

The Casey Foundation report contends that the pandemic is not the sole cause of lower test scores: Educators, researchers, policymakers, and employers who track students’ academic readiness have been ringing alarm bells for a long time. US scores in reading and math have barely budged in decades. Compared to peer nations, the United States is not equipping its children with the high-level reading, math, and digital problem-solving skills needed for many of today’s fastest-growing occupations in a highly competitive global economy. 

The Foundation recommends the following:

  • To get kids back on track, we must make sure they arrive at the classroom ready to learn by ensuring access to low- or no-cost meals, reliable internet connection, a place to study, and time with friends, teachers, and counselors.
  • Expand access to intensive tutoring for students who are behind in their classes and missing academic milestones. Research has shown the most effective tutoring is in person, high dosage, and tied directly to the school.
  • States should take advantage of all their allocated pandemic relief funding to prioritize the social, emotional, academic, and physical well-being of students. As long as funds are obligated by the Sept. 30 deadline, states should have two more full years to spend them.
  • States and school systems should address chronic absence, so more students return to learn. While few states gather and report chronic absence data by grade, all of them should. Improving attendance tracking and data will inform future decision-making. Lawmakers should embrace positive approaches rather than criminalizing students or parents due to attendance challenges, because they may not understand the consequences of even a few days missed.
  • Policymakers should invest in community schools, public schools that provide wraparound support to kids and families. Natural homes for tutoring, mental health support, nutritional aid, and other services, community schools use innovative and creative programs to support young learners and encourage parent engagement, which leads to better outcomes for kids.

Read the full report here and a recent article detailing some highlights from the report here.

Court Watch: A Second Chance

This Court Watch guest blog comes from Jennifer Murch, who takes us inside a court hearing about one West Virginian seeking a second chance after three decades behind bars. In describing her first visit to a criminal courtroom, Jennifer shows us why West Virginia needs a Second Look policy.

A contextual note from the WVCBP: The most important criminal law bill of the 2024 West Virginia legislative session got little attention from lawmakers. Senate Bill 736, the Second Look Sentencing Act, would have given judges the authority to review long sentences in cases where a person has served at least 10 years for an offense they committed before the age of 25. The bill proposed a solution to overcrowded West Virginia prisons that are home to an ever-increasing elderly population. SB 736 had bipartisan sponsorship, but was never taken up by a legislative committee.

One of my high school classmates has been incarcerated for the last 30 years. About eight months after we graduated from high school, and when he was just 18.5 years old, BB was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to Life Without Mercy.

Over the last number of years, my friend Kelly, also a high school classmate, has been advocating on his behalf. Last Monday was his “second-chance hearing” — a plea to change his sentence from institutional imprisonment to house arrest. While Kelly has been keeping me up to date on the case as it progressed, I wasn’t planning to attend the hearing, but then my dad emailed on Sunday. Kelly and her daughter would be flying in from Denver for the hearing, he said. Want to go?

I did not want to go. I had plans to tackle office work that morning, and a two-hour round-trip drive to West Virginia would be an inconvenience to my tidy life. Plus, I don’t know BB. I didn’t really know him back then, either — I was shy and reserved in high school, and terribly insecure, which probably made me appear stand-off-ish to many of my classmates — but I do remember him. I have an image of him dribbling a basketball down the court and flashing his gorgeous smile.

But Kelly would be there! I wanted to support her, and I did want to support BB even though I wasn’t connected to him because I one hundred percent believe in second chances. I knew I was being given an opportunity to show up, to see our judicial system in action, and to stand in solidarity with a person who made a horrible mistake when he was the same age as my own children, and who has been paying for it every day since, but I had a schedule to keep! Back and forth I waffled, my conscience pricking the whole time — because: giving up a Monday morning versus thirty years in a jail cell? Come on, Jennifer! Make your freedom count! — until finally I decided that if I was this conflicted, then it probably meant I should go. So I went.

The hallway outside the courtroom was crowded with people, mostly older folks who were BB’s family members, from what I gathered. There were some police officers, and some spiffily-dressed young guys who looked like attorneys. Kelly introduced me as salutatorian of BB’s class to two older women and one of them quipped, “So what have you been doing with all those smarts?” “Uh, hanging out at home and making cheese,” I answered dryly, which ended up sparking a lively conversation. (Their favorite cheese? Longhorn. I love Longhorn and I’d forgotten all about it!) And then the door opened and BB’s name was called.

I’d never been in court before (except for a driving ticket). It was like another world. Most of us sat on one side of the room. There was a big screen up front for people who were connecting via Zoom — a couple other classmates, BB’s attorney, and down in the far right corner was BB himself, sitting in his cell. At the start we could hear the banging and clanging prison sounds, but eventually someone muted him. 

The whole thing was understated, practically dull. The judge fussed about having people on Zoom and having to handle a case that originated in another county, and the defense attorney explained the history of the case and why they were bringing it up now. The prosecutor recounted the murder and listed off the reasons why it was important to keep BB in prison. The judge fretted that granting a second chance to one person would open the floodgates, effectively flooding the entire judicial system with people asking for second chances. The defense attorney patiently explained how and why his fears weren’t warranted. 

And then the defense attorney called the single witness, one of the spiffily-dressed men who was sitting two rows in front of us and who explained that he got to know BB in prison because he, too, had committed first-degree murder: straight out of high school, he’d gotten involved in drugs and shot a guy in a deal gone wrong. But in his case, he’d been convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison with mercy. He served 16 years, was released, and was now an assistant pastor of a congregation, married, and with a young child. Calmly and clearly, he spoke about BB’s peace-loving, compassionate character. For the last 30 years, BB had behaved in an exemplary manner, a fact that was never once contradicted, and he pleaded with the judge for BB to be given the same chance to contribute to society as he’d been given.

Listening to him speak, the similarities between the two men were remarkable, similarities which made their differences all the more stark:

1. The witness had been solely responsible for committing murder while BB had participated in a crime led by another person; and 
2. The witness was white and BB was Black. 

The judge watched the video that Kelly had prepared. He said he was impressed that so many people had come out in support of BB — “most of these men have no one,” he said — and then he denied BB a second chance. Thirty years ago, the jury made a decision and so they’d stick to it, he said. Gotta keep things fair, was the gist of it. 

The monitor screen went blank. The judge shuffled papers in preparation for the next case. The tiny woman sitting beside me asked, “The judge ruled against him?” and I nodded. We gathered our things and filed out.

For the rest of that day I felt weird, off-kilter, both heavy and detached. I’d just had a front row seat to narrow-minded, eye-for-an-eye logic and bald-faced racisim. It dawned on me that, in a way, I’d actually just witnessed a murder — a person’s life off-handedly tossed away — but a murder so clean and sterile I almost couldn’t tell it’d just happened. It made me feel dirty.

And I couldn’t stop marveling at how the judge had simply said no. Just…no. He hadn’t consulted with his wife, or with his pastor. He hadn’t paused for a minute or two to reflect. He hadn’t spoken a word to BB, or even looked at him, as far as I could see. That a single elderly white man sitting on a platform at the front of a room had the sole power to grant someone life, and yet had chosen not to, sent me spinning. I know court cases are complicated and that there are many legalities to take into consideration, but if those with power, people like me, can’t find it within ourselves and within our systems to give people second chances, then what hope is there? How can we ever expect anyone to grant grace to us when we need it?

In the week since I drove to the Moorefield Courthouse with my dad, I haven’t thought about BB’s case very much. It could be because I don’t know BB and his case doesn’t affect me personally, but I think my short-term memory stems from something deeper. First, the judicial system is so all-powerful that confronting it feels useless, so why bother? And second, prisoners are an out-of-sight, out-of-mind segment of the population. If we can’t see them, they don’t exist. They’re ghosts, the living dead, the forgotten ones. And yet imprisoned people are fully human, and with the same capacity to feel and suffer and change as the rest of us.

Read Jennifer’s full guest blog post.

Urge Governor Jim Justice to Fund Enrollment-based Reimbursements for Child Care Providers

The current system of reimbursing child care providers in West Virginia is based on the attendance of the child, not their enrollment. This approach often leaves providers at a financial disadvantage when children are absent due to illness or other reasons.

We urge Governor Jim Justice to call a special session that would focus on changing this reimbursement model.

According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children, stable funding based on enrollment rather than attendance can provide more predictable income for providers and support higher quality care. By adopting this approach, we can ensure that our child care providers continue offering their invaluable services without worrying about inconsistent finances.

Please join us in signing this petition and helping us advocate for a fairer reimbursement system for our West Virginia child care providers.

WV Foster Care System in Crisis, Facing Legal Consequences

West Virginia is home to the highest rate in the nation of children in foster care. The state’s foster care system has been heavily criticized recently and now faces a legal reckoning. A recent article, including data from the WVCBP, provides further details. Excerpt below:

West Virginia has the country’s highest rate of children in foster care—a figure that’s four times higher than that of the U.S. as a whole. Ravaged by the opioid epidemic, the state has seen its foster care population balloon by 57% over the past decade, overwhelming an already strapped child welfare system.

West Virginia has implemented reforms in recent years, such as hiring more Child Protective Service workers and launching a campaign to recruit foster parents. But its efforts have fallen well short, according to a review of public records and interviews with more than two dozen former foster children, foster parents, ex-case workers and others connected to the system.

They paint a picture of a system that continues to expose vulnerable children to harm due to a rush to institutionalize those needing the most support, a pattern of high caseloads and chronic understaffing, a culture of concealment and retaliation, and a shortage of foster homes so dire that kids are living in hotel rooms and even cabins in a recreational area.

“We have a freight train headed our way,” said Mike Folio, who spent three years as a lawyer for the state’s Department of Health and Human Resources, the agency that until January oversaw its foster care system. He now works as a government watchdog with Disability Rights of West Virginia, a federally mandated protection and advocacy system. 

“These kids are being damaged during their formative years,” Folio added. “If we don’t intervene now, this is a lost generation.”

West Virginia faces a legal reckoning. A sweeping class-action lawsuit accusing the state of failing to protect its foster children appears set to go to trial in the fall. The federal suit could force dramatic changes in how the system is run — an outcome plaintiffs’ attorney Marcia Robinson Lowry says can’t come soon enough. 

“They are being maltreated, sexually abused and physically abused while in the state’s custody,” said Lowry, the executive director of A Better Childhood, a nonprofit organization. “This is a system that cannot police itself.”

West Virginia has sought to dismiss the lawsuit, which calls for judicial oversight of its foster care system. But in August, a judge approved it for class action status, and a trial is scheduled for November.

“Plaintiffs paint a grim picture of a deeply flawed system that inflicts on vulnerable children much of the same abuse and neglect that it was designed to redress,” U.S. District Judge Joseph R. Goodwin said in his ruling.

A Beleaguered System

The state’s foster care system has been in crisis for years. 

More than 6,000 kids are in the system. Parental drug abuse was cited as the reason nearly half of the children were removed from their homes in 2022, according to the latest available statistics. But there is also another factor fueling the high number of kids in the system — West Virginia has been found to permanently terminate parental rights more often and more quickly than any other state. 

Marissa Sanders, a foster care reform advocate, said she thinks Child Protective Service workers are overburdened in part because they are investigating too many families that don’t need to be investigated. “They are chasing poverty cases about kids with dirty clothes or someone who forgot lunch and then they don’t have time to deal with cases where a kid is being sexually abused,” she said.

Amid mounting scrutiny, lawmakers divided the Department of Health and Human Resources, which had been overseeing the foster care system, into three parts in January in an effort to improve transparency and results.

One of the state’s underlying issues is a lack of foster parents to take in all of the children who have entered the system over the past decade. 

But even when there were fewer foster children, West Virginia was criticized for rushing to send those with mental health problems to institutions rather than finding more appropriate settings. In 2015, the U.S. Justice Department concluded that the state “has needlessly segregated thousands of children far from family and other people important in their lives.”

The state has worked to reduce its reliance on group homes and institutions since it reached a settlement with the Justice Department in 2019. But West Virginia still continues to place children in such facilities at a rate 44% higher than the national average, according to the nonprofit West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy, citing 2021 data.

In a Department of Health and Human Resources meeting in July 2023, an agency official noted that “children are placed in inappropriate settings due to a lack of available beds or are placed out of state,” according to meeting notes Disability Rights of West Virginia obtained through a public records request and provided to NBC News.

Read the full article.

SNAP Heavily Utilized in WV, but Benefits Often Don’t Meet Need

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is one of the most effective anti-poverty programs in US history. SNAP has its roots in the Mountain State and today nearly 20 percent of West Virginians use the benefits. However, it is not uncommon for the benefit amount to be insufficient to meet a household’s needs. A recent podcast and news article, featuring insight from WVCBP policy outreach director Seth DiStefano, provides further details. You can listen to the segment or read the article here.

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