CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia's House of Delegates unanimously passed a bill Wednesday to expand the authority of the state foster care advocate to investigate allegations of abuse and neglect.
Before the 100-member House voted in unison in favor, Deputy House Speaker Republican Matthew Rohrbach said the bill is “really going to help to make this system accountable, which I think is something that everybody in here wants.”
Foster Care Ombudsman Pamela Woodman-Kaehler's office is located within the Department of Health and Human Resources' Office of Inspector General. But she works independently as an advocate for foster children and parents, investigating complaints and collecting data about the state’s foster care system.
Her position was created in 2019 when the number of children under state foster care had swelled to about 6,900, up more than 60% from 2015, as the state continued to be ravaged by the national opioid crisis.
She is a former child protective services worker in Harrison County and was the state coordinator for a federally-mandated review panel of the state’s Bureau of Children and Families.
The bill advanced to the Senate Wednesday specifies that Woodman-Kaehler's office has the authority to investigate deaths, abuse and neglect involving children in the juvenile justice system.
The bill also would protect the identities of people providing confidential information during investigations, prohibiting the ombudsman and her staff from being required to disclose information about investigations or identify informants in judicial or administrative proceedings. It makes all memoranda, work product, notes and case files developed and maintained as part of an official investigation confidential, and not subject to discovery, subpoena or other means of legal compulsion.
Woodman-Kaehler told a House Health and Human Resources Committee meeting that the bill would help build trust between her and people reporting abuse and neglect, and encourage more people to come forward with information during sensitive investigations.
“This frees up the ombudsman to give them much more control," Rohrbach said Wednesday.