CHARLESTON –- The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals has received two federal grants that will help it collaborate with the Department of Health and Human Resources to improve management of child abuse and neglect cases.

Each Court Improvement Program grant will provide $144,763 for one year, with eligibility to reapply for four additional years. The grants are from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families.

The Supreme Court will match each grant with $38,255 in state funding.

The court also has received its annual Court Improvement Program grant for ongoing programs to improve handling of child abuse and neglect cases. The state has been receiving that basic grant since 1995. In the last fiscal year the state received $133,310 in federal money and this year the allotment is $130,446. The Supreme Court provides a 25 percent match annually to the federal funds, which are distributed according to a formula based on the number of children in the state. West Virginia has received an average of $120,000 a year in federal funds since 1995.

The two new grants will make a significant difference in West Virginia's ability to manage child abuse and neglect cases because they will fund more training and more improvements in data systems and data collection.

The Data Collection and Analysis Grant proposal includes a five-year strategic plan that will include

* Creation of a statewide uniform case plan to help DHHR provide information judges need to render decisions in child abuse, neglect, foster care, adoption and guardianship cases. The case plans eventually will be submitted electronically.

* Designing the child abuse and neglect and foster care youth segments of the court system's unified computer system. The court is in the initial phase of a five-year plan to standardize and unite computer systems in all courts in West Virginia.

* Establishing a new position to track, monitor, maintain, analyze and report on the data in the automated Child Abuse and Neglect Database, which went online July 1. That person also will ensure that the data is incorporated into the court system's unified computer system and will provide technical assistance and training on the existing Juvenile Abuse and Neglect Information System and Juvenile Delinquency Information System.

* Development of a system that will issue reminders of deadlines and hearings in child abuse and neglect cases to foster parents, pre-adoptive parents, relative caregivers and DHHR workers.

* Identifying reasons why there are not enough attorneys willing to represent children and parents in child abuse and neglect cases. The board will develop a plan to encourage lawyers to enter the field.

The second grant will provide money for training. A curriculum will be designed for roundtable sessions to help circuit judges become more assertive leaders in child abuse and neglect cases. There will be improved training for multidisciplinary teams formed after the initiation of child abuse and neglect petitions, as well as improved training for all professionals who work on child abuse and neglect cases.

Some funds will support an annual conference to train West Virginia Court Appointed Special Advocates.

The Supreme Court will administer the grants through the West Virginia Court Improvement Oversight Board, which includes leaders in the DHHR. The board formed when the Supreme Court received its original federal Court Improvement Program grant.

Since its formation, the Court Improvement Oversight Board has streamlined the handling of family court judges' referrals to Child Protective Services, among other things. It also worked to implement a law to allow abused parents to petition to be adjudicated as a battered parent rather than an abusing and neglectful one.

In the past 10 years, the Supreme Court also has developed mandatory continuing legal education for attorneys who practice in abuse and neglect matters, increased cross-training and collaboration with the DHHR, and implemented an automated Juvenile Abuse and Neglect Information System to ensure that removal orders comply with federal regulations.

In April, the Court adopted changes and additions to legal rules governing child and neglect proceedings. The changes closed gaps in services between the work of family courts and circuit courts.

Although much work has been done, the combination of high poverty and child abuse rates in West Virginia, and the link between the two, continue to be problems that need to be addressed. West Virginia Kids Count says 24 percent of West Virginia youth lived below the poverty rate in 2003 compared to 17 percent nationally. West Virginia's child abuse rate per 1000 children in 2003 was 22.5 percent, compared to a national rate of 12.4 percent.

In 2005, 2,186 new petitions alleging child abuse or neglect were filed in West Virginia circuit courts. Another 2,385 cases were carried over from previous years.

The current case management system does not maintain good data on how long a case has been open or how the case was closed. To address that, the court system this year began automating recordkeeping and these grants will help improve that system. Data the system generates will allow more improvements in the way West Virginia helps children.

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