WV agency won’t release docs showing where money was spent putting foster kids in hotels – News From The States

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Every month, dozens of West Virginia foster children sleep in hotels and motels — sometimes even offices or cabins. The state doesn’t have enough foster families to take children into their homes.

The West Virginia Department of Human Services spends $2.1 million annually on temporary housing for foster children, like hotels, according to a department spokesperson. The price tag includes meals and staff overtime. 

However, the department has failed over the last five months to produce any financial documents, including receipts and invoices, for West Virginia Watch showing where exactly that money was spent. 

“Transparency is an issue with that department,” said Senate Finance Chairman Eric Tarr, R-Putnam. 

After the state health department split into three new departments Jan.1, lawmakers are still struggling to get information about how the state manages its overwhelmed child welfare system. Legislators had mandated that the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources break up into smaller agencies in an effort to increase transparency; Tarr specifically wanted to better track how they were spending their money. 

Last month, state lawmakers learned that the newly-created DoHS spent money earmarked for people with disabilities on things like COVID-19 home tests. 

DoHS also manages the foster care system.

When it came to helping the state fix its foster care issues, Tarr questioned, “How do we fix this and we can appropriate money if we don’t know where it’s going to?”

In November, West Virginia Watch began requesting financial documents about foster kids’ temporary housing in 2023. The request was made through the Freedom of Information Act.

DoHS ultimately denied that request on April 26, saying that the “documents are not maintained in such a way that can be sorted to show the amount of money spent of foster children sleeping in hotels, motels, and/or lodges.”

Del. Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha

Del. Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, questioned the legitimacy of the department’s response. 

“Either they’re incompetent or they’re lying. I would lean toward the latter,” said Pushkin, who serves as minority chair of the House Health Committee. “This should be a call for my colleagues to wake up and start asking questions.”

Either they’re incompetent or they’re lying. I would lean toward the latter.

– Del. Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha

Additionally DoHS spokesperson Whitney Wetzel explained the lack of records, saying in an email, “ … Providing receipts for public accommodations that the department must occasionally use to provide safe and secure temporary housing for children in crisis could potentially reveal the placement and location of children under custody and care by the department both now and in the future.”

Pushkin responded, “Of course, they shouldn’t publish names and personal information … but for any government agency to claim they aren’t keeping records of how they’re spending public funds — taxpayer money — is irresponsible and it’s borderline malpractice.”

Both Pushkin and Tarr said Gov. Jim Justice, who is running for U.S. Senate, has failed to address ongoing issues within the foster care system. 

“For these kids to improve the situation they’re in … it’s going to take a governor who cares enough to get engaged. The best [the legislature] can do is set up the structure. It’s a failure of the executive to let that structure fall apart, and that’s what we’ve seen under this governor,” Tarr said. 

A spokesperson for Justice did not respond to an email inquiry for this story. 

Wetzel denied an interview request with state child welfare leaders.

Foster children temporary placed in hotels, offices 

There are more than 6,100 kids in the state’s foster care system, and West Virginia has a shortage of homes for children in need. 

Wetzel explained that foster children were placed in temporary housing when permanent placement is not immediately available. 

“Other exigent circumstances may also dictate a ‘temporary’ placement,” she said. “ … Public accommodations may be used to temporarily house a child within a given school district in accordance with a court order.”

Children are supervised by at least two staff members at all times, she added.

In lieu of financial documents, DoHS sent West Virginia Watch a report on children staying in hotels, motels, offices and hospitals between January-October, 2023. The majority of the document was redacted by blacked out pages. 

In January 2023, 12 children were temporarily placed in hotels, motels, offices and hospitals. By April of that same year, the number climbed to 54; nine of those children were placed in more than one of those places in the same month, the report said.

“If the public were to know the whole situation, they’d be appalled,” Pushkin said. “The reason they’re not putting the information out there … it’s just a shocking story.”

DoHS last week denied reporters’ FOIA requests for records related to a high-profile death of a 14-year-old girl in Boone County in April. Journalists along with lawmakers have unsuccessfully tried to learn if Child Protective Services was aware of the girl and/or went to check on her prior to her death. 

An attorney for DoHS cited federal and state child privacy laws in the denial.

DoHS is facing a sweeping class-action lawsuit about its treatment of foster children. 

The agency could pay possibly $172,000 in sanctions for its role in failing to preserve emails from former top foster care officials, which could have been used as evidence in the case.

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