Lawmakers advance pay raise for state foster care employees

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Lawmakers in West Virginia are looking to give pay raises to workers in the state’s foster care system.

The House of Delegates passed a bill Wednesday that would give raises of at least 15% to all caseworkers and other staff who work directly with families and children. The increase would be in addition to the 5% raise for state employees being pushed by Gov. Jim Justice.

Republican Del. Jonathan Pinson said the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources has a statewide vacancy rate of 30%. The vacancy rate in Jackson and Mason counties was recently higher than 50%, he said.

“The DHHR employees have an extremely difficult job that they do for a very meager or modest pay,” said Pinson, a sponsor of the bill.

Pinson said lawmakers need to take steps to slow the turnover rate in the state of West Virginia.

“I believe this pay raise is a step in the right direction,” he said.

In addition to offering pay raises, House Bill 4344 requires that, by the end of this year, the state contract with an independent expert to evaluate the foster care system’s intake process and make recommendations. It also mandates that the state create a public database of child welfare statistics.

Democratic Del. Lisa Zukoff said the recommendations in the bill were crafted after a year of studying the foster care system in West Virginia and other states.

“We have heard horror stories,” she said. “This is just the tip of what we can do to help our system be better.”

There are more than 7,000 children in West Virginia’s foster care system. The state has consistently ranked among those with the highest number of children in foster care per capita.

A September 2021 investigation by Mountain State Spotlight and the GroundTruth Project found a pattern of abuse and neglect of foster kids in out-of-state residential facilities. In several cases, the investigation found that the Department of Health and Human Resources continued or renewed contracts with the facilities despite its own inspection reports revealing abuse.

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