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Dawn Miller: Child welfare problems troubling, not hopeless

ROANOKE — Across the country in 2012, nearly nine of every 1,000 kids were removed from their homes. In West Virginia, three times as many young people are taken from their families, Health and Human Resources Secretary Karen Bowling told a room full of social workers this week.

It wasn’t really news to those attending the annual meeting of the Alliance for Children, a group of child welfare agencies. But it was refreshing to hear it roll off the tongue of West Virginia’s top child welfare official. She seems to get it in a way not seen in DHHR’s executive suite in a long time.

This is a big deal because taking kids away from their parents is not usually what is best for anyone — not the kids, not the family, not the state budget. People who actually do this work always say, in some cases, sure. Sometimes you have to remove a child to keep him or her safe, or because the child’s mental or physical treatment needs are so great or specialized, they cannot be met at home. But even then, they don’t necessarily need to go to some kind of institution. They especially don’t need to go to one at a great distance, out of sight, out of mind, creating more headache and expense for conscientious family members and social workers responsible for those children.

And yet, 61 percent of West Virginia youth ages 12 to 17 who were in state care on Sept. 30, 2013 were not sent to live with families, but to facilities that house multiple troubled kids, or congregant care, Bowling said.

The rest of the country is trending away from putting kids in institutions. West Virginia was, too, until 2013. While Bowling can point to individual success stories, “Statistically, we’re not making progress,” she said.

It hasn’t always been this way. At the same event, we celebrated the retirement of Scott Boileau, most recently the executive director of the Alliance for Children, but who has spent 40 years working in child welfare in West Virginia, since moving here as a raw sociology graduate in 1974.

Scott has taught me much of what I know about child welfare, and one of his claims to fame is that he figures out what a kid needs, and then asks what needs to be done to make it happen. So in the early 1990s, when he was in charge of child welfare for DHHR’s southeastern region, he just decided no more children were going out of state. The 13-county region had 100 kids out of state when he started, and just three when he left that job. He presided over a similar decline in much of the state when he worked for former DHHR Secretary Joan Ohl.

They did it by meeting kids’ needs where they were as much as possible. A school-age child who could live at home would do so. An older kid who needed to be on the path to employment and self-sufficiency would be. Whatever the circumstances, workers would “wrap around” any counseling, home visiting or other services the family needed where they were.

So it is not a foregone conclusion that West Virginia should trend in the wrong direction while the rest of the country does better. And Bowling, refreshingly, seems unwilling to accept it.

Boileau had some encouraging words for her at the event Thursday evening at the Stonewall Resort.

“I applaud you Karen. If you can do wrap-around services, and get rid of bogus things like socially necessary services, we can do something,” he said. “It has been a long damn time since we’ve gotten any leadership at the executive level to do something about out-of-state care.”

Dawn Miller, the Gazette’s editorial page editor, can be reached at dawn@wvgazette.com.


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