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U.S. finds W.Va. not in compliance on foster care

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- While West Virginia officials cut child-care assistance to hundreds of low-income working parents, federal reviews show the state could do better at accessing other federal resources for children.

West Virginia receives federal money to care for some children in state custody, often called Title IV-E money after the section of law that defines the program.

In three out of the last four federal reviews of the state's foster care program over a 10-year period, officials found that the state did not substantially comply with eligibility requirements to receive federal assistance. Most recently, in 2011, the state was not in compliance with eligibility requirements and paid over $200,000 back to the federal government.

Title IV-E foster care money is the largest federal funding stream for states' child welfare activities. To be eligible for funding, a child must meet income guidelines in his or her own home and have been removed because of suspected abuse or neglect.

Foster care refers not only to children staying with foster families but also to those staying in treatment centers or temporary shelters.

Federal foster care money covers food, shelter and clothing of eligible children, foster care placement services and for training staff and foster parents. States pay these bills up front, then apply to the federal government for reimbursements.

West Virginia failed reviews both for not being able to show children qualified and for not using federal foster care assistance for children who did qualify.

During the past decade, West Virginia has had to reimburse a total of $1.1 million in federal foster-care funds, according to the state's Department of Health and Human Resources.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, West Virginia's federal foster care funding held nearly steady at around $23 million in 2002 and 2003, jumped to $29 million in 2004 and then was slashed nearly in half to around $17 million in 2005. In 2006, the state's federal foster care funding was back up to $36 million, and down to $34 million in 2007, around $29 million in 2008, almost $37 million in 2009 and $34 million in 2010.

While the amount of federal funding has varied, the number of children in foster care over the past 10 years has increased from about around 3,000 to 4,000, according to the DHHS. DHHS has a count of foster care cases in the state on the last day of the year. The state had 3,220 foster care cases on the last day of the year in 2002; 4,069 in 2003; 3,990 in 2004; 4,629 in 2005; 4,018 in 2006; 4,432 in 2007; 4,412 in 2008; 4,237 in 2009 and 4,097 in 2010.

In a May 2011 review, the feds evaluated the state foster care cases during a six-month period from April through September 2010. Officials from the Administration for Children and Families found that 12 of the 80 cases evaluated were in error and another 18 cases were ineligible for federal funding. The federal review also found that in 17 of the cases, the state did not claim foster care maintenance payments, though it was eligible for them. According to the review, having more than four error cases knocked the state out of compliance.

"The overall findings of this review indicate eligibility determination and fiscal staff are not consistently making eligibility and claiming decisions that are compatible with the title IV-E requirements," the review states. "There does not appear to be consistent, collaborative application of the federal eligibility requirements which has led to the unsatisfactory compliance level in this review, consisting of an excessive number of erroneous payments otherwise ineligible payments and underpayments."

During the most recent review in 2011, the Children's Bureau ordered a disallowance totaling $211,513.  The agency paid the disallowance, officials said.

In a response, DHHR spokeswoman Marsha Dadisman and Doug Robinson, interim commissioner for DHHR's Bureau for Children and Families, said successfully applying for federal foster care money is difficult for all states.

"The federal IV-E rules are onerous and complex," they said. "It is difficult to ensure that 100 percent of the cases will be error free."

The federal government allows for a process where the state can "settle up" with the feds, claiming money that was missed and paying back money for children that weren't eligible, this is a normal part of the IV-E repayment process, Robinson said.

DHHR also says outdated eligibility requirements mean that fewer children are eligible than in past years. Eligibility requirements are based on the child's family's income. States use guidelines that were determined in 1996 and have not been adjusted over time.

"The income guidelines each state uses are the income guidelines for the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program as it existed in 1996," Robinson wrote in a response. "West Virginia's 1996 income guidelines for a family of four to be eligible for federally funded foster care, their monthly income could not exceed $1,196 per month or $14,532 per year after allowable deductions. In 2012, [these are] still the income guidelines for determining a child's eligibility for federally funded foster care."

Another factor in the process of getting federal foster care funding is the wording on judges' orders for children in out-of-home care.

The West Virginia Supreme Court improvement board has been working on improving that aspect of it over the past few years.

"We're always trying to improve," said Nikki Tennis, director of the division of children's services at the Supreme Court.

In order for the state to be eligible for federal foster care money, when a child is removed from his or her home, a judge must find that being in the home was contrary to the welfare of the child. Within 60 days, there has to be a finding that the state made reasonable efforts to prevent that child's removal.

"If those findings aren't made, they are not eligible for IV-E," Tennis said.

Also, within a year of the child being removed from his or her home, the court must have made a reasonable effort to create a permanency plan for the child. That plan could include reunification with the child's family, adoption or another arrangement.

Officials have emphasized rulings that affect federal funding during training sessions and conferences, Tennis said. 

The state, for its part, is also making efforts to increase the amount of federal foster care money it gets, Dadisman and Robinson said.

"Working with the Casey Foundation, we were able to bring in the leading national expert in child welfare funding to do a review of our IV-E amounts," they wrote in a prepared statement. "Moreover, DHHR staff conducts thorough reviews and analysis of all foster care cases to ensure that eligibility is maximized. Double-checking each case also reduces the instance for errors.

"Until there are changes at the federal level on how foster care is federally funded, all states will continue to see a decline in the IV-E revenues," they wrote.

Despite not getting as much federal money as it could be, the state recently made cuts to its childcare assistance

An advocate said the state should be maximizing the amount of federal funding it gets, especially in light of those cuts.

"We ought to be drawing as much as we can for child welfare," said Scott Boileau, executive director of the Alliance for Children and a former commissioner of DHHR's Bureau for Children and Families. "That's what it's there for... If we're in a position where we need to cut social services because of budget concerns, we should do all we can to maximize what federal sources are available to fund services."

Co-payments for families receiving state childcare assistance went up from 5 to 12 percent at the beginning of August. Beginning Jan. 1, families that make above 150 percent of the poverty level will not be eligible for state childcare subsidy.

The cuts, which affect an estimated 800 families with 1,400 children, are expected to save the state $8 million.

Childcare advocates fear that without subsidies, working parents will quit jobs and go on welfare - or worse, children will be left in unsafe places rather than licensed daycare facilities.

At the YWCA's Mel Wolf Child Development Center in Charleston, some co-payments have gone from $3 to $8 a day, YWCA Executive Director Deb Weinstein said.

"That is quite onerous when you think about it," Weinstein said. Parents who work five days a week now pay $40 a week and $184 per month. "When you're looking at people who are low wage earners, that's extremely onerous, extremely challenging," she said.

Parents who will lose their subsidies altogether in January - those who make between 185 and 150 of the federal poverty level-- are worse off.

At Mel Wolf, parents with infants pay a weekly rate of $135. Those with 2 year olds pay $120 weekly.

"So if you have an infant and a 2-year-old, that's $1,020 a month," Weinstein said. "For a low-wage earner with children, that is so difficult to fathom and what we're very concerned about is if a parent loses subsidies altogether... coming up with $1,020 a month will be impossible."

Weinstein said she's concerned parents who can no afford daycare will use a less expensive babysitter. Those children would miss out on the development opportunities offer at a place like Mel Wolf, she said.

"The parents are extremely concerned about this because the kids are getting intellectual, cognitive, social and emotional development that's preparing their kids for kindergarten," she said.

Then there are the safety concerns.

Weinstein relayed a story about a Mel Wolf volunteer who was painting the facility one Saturday morning when they found a toddler running up Donnally Street toward the Elk River. When they discovered the child had no parent with her, the volunteer called the police. An officer ultimately went door to door looking for the child's home. A babysitter caring for six children -- the children of three single mothers who were working on the weekend -- had fallen asleep and didn't realize that one child had gone out the door.

"This speaks to the fact that desperate people do desperate things," Weinstein said. "If you're desperate for affordable childcare, you may without knowing it be putting your child in harm's way."

Reach Lori Kersey at lori.kersey@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1240.


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