By Autumn Shelton, WV Press Association
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Following passage of two new statutes and the implementation of multiple initiatives, the state’s Child Protective Service (CPS) worker vacancy rate has decreased 14 percent since January, according to West Virginia Department of Health and Human Services Bureau for Social Services Commissioner Jeffrey Pack.
Pack, who spoke before members of the Legislative Joint Standing Committee on Health during their interim session on Tuesday, said that the CPS vacancy rate was 33 percent in January. Now, that rate is 19 percent, and trending in a positive direction.
Click image below to see video of the meeting
During the 2023 Regular Legislative Session, Senate Bill 273 and House Bill 3261 were both passed, Pack explained. Senate Bill 273 changed the way that CPS workers are allocated throughout the state, while House Bill 3261 established a pilot program to allow those with associate’s degrees in a human service field, or retired law enforcement, parole and probation officers, to receive employment as a CPS worker or a youth services worker in lieu of a bachelor’s degree.
Regarding Senate Bill 273, Pack said that prior to passage, CPS workers were allocated based on caseload. After passage, workers were to be allocated based on caseload and county population.
Counties, such as Kanawha, Raleigh, Marshall and Roane, will receive an additional one to three CPS workers, while Monongalia County will receive up to eleven additional workers, he continued. The eastern panhandle will receive up to 20 additional CPS workers.
The bill also created a merit-based pay system that will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2024.
“This has been quite a heavy lift, and it’s ongoing,” Pack stated, before noting that his department is working with employees, who can decide to opt-in to the pay system, for additional input.
As for the pilot program established in House Bill 3261, Pack said it is being implemented in two areas of the state.
“There were two geographical areas that were chosen to utilize this in,” Pack said. “It was the Fourteenth Judicial Circuit, which is Braxton, Clay, Gilmer and Webster counties as well as the Twenty-Third Judicial Circuit, which is Berkeley, Jefferson and Morgan counties.”
Pack said the bureau is working with New River Community and Technical College and Blue Ridge Community and Technical College to create a pipeline for future employees, and to provide additional training and certifications.
“We have also implemented a number of workforce initiatives that have really born some amazing fruit,” Pack stated.
He explained that the initiatives include an expanded pay differential for employees in the eastern panhandle, a one-time 15 percent base-building pay differential for employees hired before June 19, 2022, retention incentives for those hired after June 19, 2022, and base-building pay differentials based upon years of service.
“This has made remarkable progress in our workforce,” he said.
Additionally, the bureau has implemented resources for better trauma response.
“As you can imagine folks who work in CPS are oftentimes victims of seeing unthinkable things,” Pack said, “and we have done a number of things to try to alleviate that.”
These resources include providing coverage for mental health services at no-cost to the employee, training for supervisors to identify when an employee may be struggling from burn-out, working with the Marshall University Center for Excellence and Recovery to develop best practices for addressing trauma, and establishing peer support groups, Pack said.
Also, Pack said that the department is replacing laptop computers with tablets, and is providing wi-fi upgrades in all offices for increased efficiency.
According to Pack, 14 of the state’s 57 offices have already received wi-fi upgrades.
Following Pack’s presentation, Del. Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, inquired about the progress being made to increase placement opportunities for children in foster care.
Pack responded, “We are working on that.”
“We are evaluating what we need to do to incentivize more foster homes to be available,” Pack said, adding that the department is in a transitional period “in terms of the kids that are placed in a residential treatment facility versus being able to be treated in a foster home or in their own home in their community.”
Pushkin then asked for clarification on children who are temporarily being placed in hotels, and how long this practice has been happening.
Pack said that he gets a daily update on the number of children that must stay in a hotel. As of Aug. 7, three children were staying in a hotel.
“[The practice] has been going on for as long as I can tell you,” Pack said, adding that “this isn’t a “West Virginia unique problem.”
“The reality is that when we have to remove children, or when children disrupt from their current placement, or maybe they are out of state in a treatment facility and the facility says, ‘You need to come get this child’ – without the ability to make a placement, that’s our last alternative,” he continued.
Typically, a child will only remain in the hotel for “a few days” until a placement can be made, Pack added.
Cammie Chapman, deputy secretary of Children and Adult Services, then gave a presentation on reducing the state’s reliance on out-of-state residential treatment facilities for children.
She said the goal is to have more community-based services for children placed in foster care.