Federal lawsuit targets West Virginia foster care system

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — The overwhelmed foster care system in opioid-ravaged West Virginia has failed to protect children, according to a federal lawsuit filed Monday.

The lawsuit seeking class-action status was filed in U.S. District Court on behalf of a dozen children against Gov. Jim Justice, the state Department of Health and Human Resources and other state officials.

The 105-page complaint describes stories of neglect and harm done to foster children while under the department's care. Many were in inadequate and dangerous placements, left without necessary services or forced to languish in foster care for years, including a 17-year-old suicidal boy who sleeps in a locked cell at a juvenile detention center.

Filed by a Charleston law firm and nonprofit advocacy groups A Better Childhood and Disability Rights West Virginia, the lawsuit said the state's child welfare system has "significant administrative problems that hinder its ability to operate effectively."

"For years, the state has ignored repeated recommendations about how to fix the damaging West Virginia foster care system," Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of A Better Childhood, said in a statement. "Children are being sent to institutions, placed in foster homes without any services, and abandoned by the state."

New York-based A Better Childhood has filed similar lawsuits in several states.

DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch said changes were made to the child welfare system starting in 2013 and efforts have increased every year since.

Crouch said the lawsuit will cost the state millions of dollars "and was filed by a company that has never contacted us to ask the question: 'What are you doing to fix these problems?' We welcome the opportunity to make our case in court."

The governor's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Earlier this year, West Virginia agreed to expand mental health services for children after a federal investigation found the state unnecessarily institutionalized kids with emotional or behavioral disorders.

In the case of the 17-year-old boy, the lawsuit said he was physically abused by his family and has been under DHHR care since 2012. He lived in group homes and residential care centers before being sent to a juvenile detention center, where he sleeps on a mattress on a cement floor in a locked cell. He suffers from depression, has attempted suicide several times and will be homeless when he ages out of the system within the year, the lawsuit said.

In September, the DHHR told lawmakers that 651 foster care children, mostly teen boys, have run away from group care settings or schools in less than a year.

"Not only are we failing to provide federally mandated care, but we are also failing to prepare these children for what lies ahead and instead condemning many of them to a life of abuse and homelessness once they age out of foster care," plaintiffs' attorney Richard Walters said.

The DHHR's foster care ranks have swelled to about 6,900 children — an increase of more than 60% from the same time in 2015 — as the state grapples with the opioid addiction epidemic. West Virginia has by far the highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the nation.

The lawsuit said three siblings ages 2, 3 and 4 were placed under DHHR care because of drug-addicted parents, but the children have moved from one foster home to another "due to DHHR's inability to appropriately develop case plans and to follow department procedures."

West Virginia can no longer use the opioid epidemic as an excuse, the lawsuit said.

"The foster care crisis in West Virginia is not an issue that just arose in the last 4-5 years, it's a systemic problem that has festered in the state for almost 20 years," said Jeremiah Underhill, legal director of Disability Rights West Virginia.

The lawsuit also says the state failed to maintain an adequate number of appropriate foster homes and resorts to quick placements among relatives without vetting or monitoring to ensure children's safety. The reliance upon kinship caregivers has increased more than 30 percentage points over the past five years.

State lawmakers have limited placement of a child in an out-of-state facility unless it's closer to the child's family or the child has a health issue that cannot be addressed by an in-state facility.