CHARLESTON – Across our state, we see the effect the opioid crisis has had on West Virginia’s children and families.
Reading the headlines regarding lawsuits and the increasing number of children in the state's care, I have become shockingly aware of our state’s failure to properly address the problems facing the most vulnerable population of children: the children who have physical, intellectual, cognitive, and/or mental health disabilities.
This population makes up more than 25 percent of the children currently in the state’s foster care system.
The state Department of Health and Human Resources website indicates that, as of October 2019, the state placed more than 300 children in out-of-state institutions, 580 youth into in-state residential group homes and 77 in psychiatric facilities.
This doesn’t include the number of children who are on the waiting list to be sent out-of-state or for in-state hospitalization.
West Virginia taxpayers spend thousands of dollars a day to institutionalize many of these children, often at out-of-state facilities. This is a huge amount of money which I believe could be better spent by providing those same services right here in our communities.
The number of children in our care with physical, intellectual, cognitive, and/or mental health disabilities will only continue to increase as a possible result of the opioid crisis. By institutionalizing these youth, we are punishing children as a consequence of their parent’s actions.
We praise those for getting sober and fighting the disease of addiction, but in the end, we cannot forget the real victims – the children who were born addicted and have intellectual or developmental disabilities, or children with emotional and behavioral disorders exacerbated by the trauma endured from multiple moves and placements while their parents got clean.
We must not forget that these children are the ones suffering the life-long repercussions of their parent’s actions.
This issue affects everyone. It is not partisan.
Despite these challenges, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel to solve this problem.
The Achievement Center of Texas has been appropriately addressing these issues for 42 years with an impeccable track record. I’d like to suggest the West Virginia DHHR implement similar, proven programs tailored to our state’s needs.
Programs such as the Achievement Center of Texas provide after-school and day habilitation services for children 12-17 which address behavioral and mental health while also teaching life skills and community engagement.
Most parents must be employed, and not all children 12-17 can stay home alone. This is a terrible impediment to encouraging the fostering of children with disabilities. That’s where a program like this would be incredibly helpful.
We must develop similar programs in this state that will preserve families and use the millions of dollars that we are sending out-of-state to implement these programs within our communities.
Lack of services should not be a reason that children ages 12-17 miss out on forever families, nor should it be a reason that biological parents cannot care for their children.
I’m still trying to grapple with the enormity of this problem, and by no means an expert in this field. But I’ve recently been listening to those who specialize in child welfare, and I’ve committed to be a voice for children and families to raise awareness for their increasing needs.
Someone told me once that by being elected, I had the platform to implement change. They were wrong. It takes all of us to implement change and I want to do my part.
Pack (R-Raleigh) is vice chairman of the House Committee on Health and Human Resources. He represents the 28th District, which includes portions of Raleigh, Summers and Monroe counties.