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Pamela Woodman-Kaehler

Foster care ombudsman Pamela Woodman-Kaehler addresses the Joint Health Committee in Charleston on Nov. 18, 2019.

CHARLESTON — Based on her first report to the state, the new foster care ombudsman has found success for people throughout the child welfare system, but fear and lack of information is pervasive.

The report by the director of the West Virginia Foster Care Ombudsman Office, Pamela Woodman-Kaehler, spans from November 2019 through the beginning of 2021. Woodman-Kaehler found fear of retaliation was a key factor for those who made complaints to the office. More than 90% of complaints to the office cited “fear of retaliation.”

“As a large, complex and often involuntary service, the foster care system can be forbidding and intimidating; it is not surprising that fear is a recurring complaint theme,” the report reads. “What is surprising is the pervasiveness of fear and the degree to which fear inhibits, or even obliterates, constructive communication.”

The ombudsman office was created during the 2019 legislative session, amended into the first foster care reform bill in response to the controversial switch to a managed care organization to coordinate foster care children’s health care needs. The role of the ombudsman is to advocate for the rights of foster children and parents by participating in investigations of complaints by foster children or foster parents regarding inaction or questionable actions by providers of managed care services or of social service agencies.

The office follows the 2020-passed Bills of Rights for foster children and parents.

Of the 312 complaints received through Jan. 31, about 53% were from foster/kinship parents and 11% from biological parents. Approximately 29% of complaints were determined valid and were resolved to the complainant’s satisfaction. Significant, repeated inputs/complaints from foster parents illuminate the array of reasons why they become disenfranchised or leave, the report states.

Most complaints involved Child Protective Services, with action/inaction by an agency being the top reason for complaints, followed by lack of communication and financial/reimbursement issues. Financial/reimbursement issues were most likely to be resolved.

“Beyond the primary and secondary complaint issues, it is important to note that over 90% of all complainants also communicate some degree, sometimes quite intense, of fear to communicate, fear to report, or fear of retaliation,” the report reads. “Additional information to further deconstruct this pervasive and crucial issue will be subject matter for future Foster Care Ombudsman reports.”

The report confirms pervasive issues within the system, including lack of communication across all levels. Multiple complainant roles maintain the guardian ad litem attorneys (GALs) do not communicate with foster/kinship parents or have contact with foster children and foster families are not being informed of multi-disciplinary team meetings.

CPS workers also have a deficient or inconsistent knowledge of policy and procedure. Workers themselves report they do not receive communications and feel their training does not apply to the real world.

However, the ombudsman office has found success helping families and practitioners navigate the system and find resolution. The report ends with three pages of comments thanking the office for their help:

“Well, you have done a great job and I am pleased to say that working with you and your team has been a joy. Thank you again for helping me to bring this little 4-year boy back to me where I can love, nurture and mold him into the man he needs to be. May God always bless your path!”

“Where have (you) been through this journey. Like literally if we would have had this kind of support, we would still be doing foster. I do not know how to thank you enough.”

“We can now be at peace. Thanks again for everything.”

Woodman-Kaehler writes that she hopes the report, and future quarterly ones, will help leaders and lawmakers improve the system to the benefit of children and families.

Reporter Taylor Stuck can be reached at tstuck@hdmediallc.com. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.

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