West Virginia Judiciary

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Chief Justice's Column

January - March 2013

A New View Toward Finding Homes for Children in Need

by Chief Justice Brent D. Benjamin

Pope John Paul II said, “As the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the whole world in which we live.” Sadly, the promise of a good family is lacking for too many of our children. From 2002 to September 2012, a staggering 26,000-plus petitions alleging child abuse and/or neglect were filed in West Virginia, with 682 more petitions filed in 2011 than in the prior year. The problem is getting worse. As you read this, more than 4,000 West Virginia children are in the State’s care; about a fourth of these children are waiting to be adopted – their parents’ rights having been terminated. Each of these children has a name, a story, and a potential.

Every child deserves an address, a home, a school, and a loving, supportive family. Each child deserves nurturing, and a fair chance to fulfill his or her future. Every child deserves permanency in his or her life. Certainly these statistics and the trending which we are seeing is dismal; indeed, disturbing. But I believe you will agree with me that looking the other way is not an option. We cannot let these children be forgotten. This is a moral issue every bit as much as it is a legal issue. And while I recognize that solutions will not be easy and that they will not happen overnight, I also know that we will measure success one young life at a time.

I am proud to announce that West Virginia’s court system is initiating an innovative program, “New View,” which is adapted from Georgia’s successful “Cold Case Project.” In 2013, seven lawyer “viewers” will explore the cases of 50 children lingering in out-of-home care and make specific recommendations for finding them permanent homes. The project will breathe new life into difficult cases with positive energy and a fresh perspective in the quest for permanently placing these children with good families. This program is not a solution itself. It is a beginning.

As you might well suspect, substance abuse underlies a large number of the state’s child abuse and neglect cases. It is a massive epidemic that Governor Earl Ray Tomblin, law enforcement, and local communities are addressing.

One of the more successful approaches to tackling the substance abuse problem, I have found, is the drug court program. I have seen first-hand, time and again, how young people and older adults have turned their lives around through drug courts, an alternative to incarceration for first-time, non-violent offenders who accept the rigors of regular drug screens, intensive counseling, holding a job and/or maintaining a respectable grade-point average in school, and meeting with probation officers. Success in this program, for many if not most, is more difficult than jail. But figures show that recidivism for those successfully completing the drug court is far lower than that for those merely warehoused in our jails. And more importantly, graduates become positive, productive members of our society.

Drug courts have tremendous potential. They are relatively new and are not the complete solution, but they will help restore individuals, families and neighborhoods.

The senior justice on the Supreme Court, Robin Jean Davis, has been a crusader along with Circuit Court Judge Alan Moats and others to address the truancy problem in our state. As they implore, a child who is not in his or her classroom is more likely to end up in a courtroom. They point to statistics that four out of five inmates in our penal institutions did not finish school.

For especially troubled kids, hopelessness in detention centers prompted Justice Margaret Workman to exercise strong leadership to reform programs administered through the Division of Juvenile Services.

At the community level, leaders like Rev. Matthew J. Watts, senior pastor at Grace Bible Church in Charleston, have worked diligently with troubled youths to set them on a path to lead meaningful lives.

The court system has come a long, creative way in helping children, but we must continue to do more do more. As bureaucratic as it sounds, a baseline needs assessment will help us to quantify how we can best find loving homes for West Virginia children in need of permanency. It will help mobilize organizations to find families for children. A program I hope to see evolve before too long is “One Church, One Child,” which could conceivably match every place of worship in the state with a child in need of a nurturing family. National Foster Care Month in May and National Adoption Month in November can draw attention to these efforts, but every month must be foster/adoption month in West Virginia.