CHARLESTON - In a state as oddly misshapen as West Virginia, with cross-state drives taking almost five hours, Department of Health and Human Resources spokesman John Law says geography can be an issue.
An issue, the DHHR hopes, that can be relieved with some extra money.
The state Supreme Court announced Sept. 13 that it will receive two federal Court Improvement Grants that each provide $144,763 for one year, helping to establish new ways of handling child abuse and neglect cases.
Law says it will help establish electronic case tracking throughout the state, giving the flow of information a much-needed boost over the mountains and into far-off courthouses.
"That's real important because people want to be able to go into the database in Ohio County and find out something that happened in Putnam County," he said. "You always want to improve the handling of all cases, but these in particular.
"Something will happen because somebody moved around, and people will call and ask, 'Well, why didn't you know that?' So that will help a lot."
DHHR Secretary Martha Walker and Supreme Court Chief Justice Robin Davis held a press conference to announce the new funding and were excited to undertake a new period of collaboration.
"To protect our children, we will have to stop the turf battles and work together… because we are all in this together," Walker said. "This grant illustrates we can do that.
"In the upcoming months, Justice Davis, we're going to work together to improve on some successful systems we have in place."
Law adds that the money will help the DHHR to review its multidisciplinary team system.
"It brings people in from various disciplines to make decisions on where a child should go and the treatment he or she should get, and those work pretty well," he said. "Part of this grant will allow us to do more in-depth analysis to see if it's really working or to fine-tune them or change them in any way."
One of the grants, the Data Collection and Analysis Grant, includes a proposal for a five-year plan that will: Establish the database, uniting the computer systems in all state courts; design the child abuse and neglect and foster care youth segments of the court system's unified computer system; establish a new position to monitor the data on the database; develop 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; and identify reasons why there are not enough attorneys willing to represent children and parents in child abuse and neglect cases.
Currently, Walker said, there are 4,000 families a month receiving child protective services, 3,000 children in foster care and more than 2,300 families dealing with children who have status offenses or delinquency.
"These grants will help us achieve permanency for children in a more timely manner by giving us funds to train people and evaluate what we're doing. If it's right, we'll keep it. If it's wrong, we'll change it," she added.
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.
A release from the Supreme Court said the combination of high poverty and child abuse rates is a problem that needs addressed.
"West Virginia Kids Count says 24 percent of West Virginia youth lived below the poverty rate in 2003, compared to 17 percent nationally," the release said. "West Virginia's child abuse rate per 1,000 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 were carried over from previous years."
Of note in 2006-filed lawsuits is the story of Logan Goodall, a 2-year-old boy who was allegedly sexually abused and killed by Michael Merrifield, who has been indicted in Putnam County of first-degree murder. Goodall's father Jeremy is suing Merrifield's parents, saying that his father John, the boy's doctor, covered up the injuries, and his wife Diane lied to a DHHR employee about the whereabouts of her son, which led to more abuse.
The DHHR is also listed as a defendant.
"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 record-keeping and these grants will help improve that system," the Supreme Court said.
Money from the second grant will provide 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," the Supreme Court said.
However it's used, Walker says the money is sure to help.
"To make the decisions we need to preserve families and help children, we must improve the quick flow of valid information," she said. "Electronic case tracking… will help us do that by allowing for efficiencies in the system."