MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Two branches of government that try to help troubled West Virginia kids but often function as adversaries are teaming up on a project to find permanent homes for 50 foster children.
The New View initiative involves seven attorneys picked by the state Supreme Court and dozens of cold cases chosen from an initial pool of 200 at the state Department of Health and Human Resources.
The program is modeled after one in Georgia and is designed to put fresh eyes on the toughest cases, said Nikki Tennis, director of the Division of Children's Services for the state court system. On average, most West Virginia children are in foster care less than 12 months, according to the DHHR. But many bounce around the system for years - some to as many as 15 temporary homes.
Georgia was able to find permanent homes for about half of the "cold cases" it reviewed, Tennis said, and court officials are hopeful the West Virginia team will have similar or better results. If it does, the courts may continue the New View program.
The "viewers" will be trained in April, and then they will investigate each child's case. At the end of the year, team members will produce reports on each child and a statistical report on all 50 that could offer guidance to the courts and the DHHR.
The work will not only recap the project, Tennis said, but identify potential patterns. If it finds bureaucratic barriers, communication failures or other systemic shortcomings, for example, the courts could recommend changes in rules, policies, practices or laws.
Gretchen Lewis, a Charleston attorney and former DHHR secretary who will be part of the team, said the report won't be about pointing fingers.
"The assessment of blame is not the point," she said. "Finding out what went wrong so we can prevent it in the future is important."
Georgia found a variety of reasons that children languished in state custody for years. Sometimes, case workers left and their files weren't handed off. Other times, cases were inadvertently left off court dockets.
"It's very heartbreaking to think about," Lewis said. "It is a problem nationally, and the reasons can be many. But it really doesn't matter; you just have to get in there and help these kids."
Brent Benjamin, chief justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court, said the program won't solve every child's problems overnight, but "we will measure success one young life at a time."
"We cannot let these children be forgotten," he recently wrote in The West Virginia Lawyer, the state bar magazine. "This is a moral issue every bit as much as it is a legal issue."