CHARLESTON – The Juvenile Justice Commission will host a public forum later this month regarding the state Department of Health and Human Resources plan to change child shelter care and residential service.

The forum is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. July 27, and it will be held in the West Virginia Senate Judiciary Committee room, Room 208W, in the West wing of the Capitol.

“The DHHR is making contract changes involving the care and treatment of court-involved youth as if there is not a court system responsible to supervise this care, and the public should know,” Putnam Circuit Judge and Juvenile Justice Commission Chairman Phillip Stowers said.

According to the state Supreme Court, the DHHR has been working toward changing its contracts with child shelters and residential service providers for some time. The Commission became aware of the proposals in February but delayed holding a hearing because details of the draft contracts kept changing.

“The Commission is charged by the Supreme Court to look at all systemic issues for youth placed in residential care by circuit judges,” Stowers said in a press release. “The changes to the residential care model recently proposed by the state depart from the current model of care so dramatically that substantial unanswered questions exist, and the commission must make sure the proposed changes are in the best interest of West Virginia youth placed in residential care.

“We are holding this forum as an opportunity for comment and to answer these questions."

Commission Director Cindy Largent-Hill said some providers have said the contracts offered by the DHHR’s Bureau for Children and Families will make it difficult not only to adequately and appropriately serve youths but even to remain in business. She said there also is a concern about maintaining the safety of the children with the proposed agreements.

Largent-Hill said the Commission would like to gather information to ensure it and the public are fully informed.

Stowers said he recently learned that no providers have signed the proposed contracts, therefore all residential treatment and emergency shelter services could cease as early as Sept. 1.

DHHR-BCF Commissioner Nancy Exline announced during the June Residential Commission to Study to the Placement of Children meeting that the final version of the contracts would be distributed in August, but just before the July 4 weekend the DHHR sent out what it said were final contracts and gave providers until July 25 to sign them or opt to no longer serve West Virginia children.

Stowers asked the DHHR to extend the deadline, but the DHHR has refused.

“Providers need more than 14 working days to consider such major changes in how the state cares for our at-risk children,” Stowers said.

The Juvenile Justice Commission supports the DHHR’s efforts to reduce the number of days youths spend in residential placements, and the effort to save money.

“The goal of moving toward a community-based service model, however, does not justify the possible wholesale dismantling of the present residential model,” Stowers said. “The commission is impartial and does not intend to participate in negotiations. It is concerned at the lack of transparency in the contract procedure and wants to gather information."

According to a press release about the forum, the Commission is concerned if certain issues have been reviewed by the DHHR after receiving "voluminous comments from providers."

Those concerns are:

• A proposal to eliminate the three-level classification of children and whether that will lead to children with different treatment needs being placed in same facility;

• Confusion as to the role of the multidisciplinary team in determining the continued need for treatment while in placement;

• Limits on the amount of time some youths can spend at treatment centers that may be contrary to state law; and

• A requirement to send youths back to the same residential placements they left if a court determines they need additional services.

“You can’t pick a day a child is ready, and no judge would send someone back to a placement they just left that didn’t work,” Stowers said in the press release. “In hearing about these changes the public may be concerned about reductions in treatment options as well as the safety of children.

“Circuit Judges are required every day to decide how our children in crisis get appropriate and effective services from the state. If possible these services should first be provided in the child's community. In many judicial circuits, however, necessary and effective community-based services for youth in the court system are non-existent."

According to state law, courts can order children to foster care, residential treatment centers, or emergency shelters, depending on the case.

But West Virginia’s foster care system is at capacity, so courts continue to request community-based interventions and options; however, they are not available or accessible. With no foster care placements available and basically non-existent local services, judges must place children in residential treatment centers or shelters. Judges are responsible for making sure that the children under court orders are getting appropriate and adequate care, no matter where they are.

Those who wish to speak at the forum are asked to call Lorri Stotler at 304-267-3730. Speakers also can sign up from 8:30 a.m. to 9:15 a.m. on July 27. The length of time allotted for comments will be determined by the number of speakers.

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West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals

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