CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The lives of many children are at a higher risk of death or further harm because of the inadequacies of West Virginia's Child Protective Services system, according to a recent legislative audit.
The report describes a lack of urgency in investigating child abuse cases, an inefficient system for receiving child abuse and neglect reports, and no analysis of child abuse cases that could show what was learned from the situation from the agency charged with protecting West Virginia's children from abuse and neglect.
Child Protective Services is part of the Department of Health and Human Resources' Bureau for Children and Families.
The audit conducted by the Performance Evaluation and Research Division of the West Virginia Legislative Auditor - the group charged with researching state government, assessing performance and creating audits in order to bring attention to lawmakers - was presented during Wednesday's interim meeting and found the following:
* The Bureau for Children and Families has problems meeting timelines for investigating reports of child abuse and neglect. State Law requires workers to respond to abuse and neglect reports within 14 days or within 72 hours of imminent danger.
In 2011, Child Protective Services workers met the timeline in just 48 percent of the cases. It also has a 28 percent turnover rate for Child Protective Services workers who are responsible for investigating child abuse allegations.
* The system for receiving child abuse and neglect reports is decentralized and inefficient.
The Bureau for Children and Families has studied creating a centralized intake system for more than six years, and has documented the benefits experienced by other states; however, the agency has not taken any action in this area.
* The Bureau for Children and Families does not take a state-level responsibility to review, analyze and publicly report annually on Child Protective Services fatalities and near fatalities.
The Legislature and the public are not aware of the number of child deaths from abuse or neglect reported each year within the Child Protective Services system.
The Office of the Legislative Auditor has evaluated West Virginia's Child Protective Services in the past and reported difficulties in investigating allegations of child abuse and neglect in a timely manner. The Bureau for Children and Families within the Department of Health and Human Resources reported that the issue persists.
As a result, the legislative auditor issued the current audit to examine the causes of the agency's poor response time and focused on the agency's management of the Child Protective Services workforce and long-term plan to fix the issue.
Sen. Donald Cookman, a Hampshire County Democrat and retired circuit court judge, said he was appalled by the audit.
"I couldn't imagine a report being any worse," he said. "I'm new to the Legislature, and I see we deal with a lot of different issues. Earlier that same day I was in a meeting where we were dealing with license fees and whether to raise the license fees or not. There are important issues - when you're dealing with children in abuse and neglect situations, we're talking about life and death.
"It's extremely important we look at this and give it the importance it deserves and the attention it deserves."