CHARLESTON - The agency charged with protecting West Virginia's children from abuse and neglect suffers from high staff turnover, consistently fails to do timely investigations and appears unwilling to fix its many shortcomings, according to a legislative audit.
Child Protective Services is part of the Department of Health and Human Resources' Bureau for Children and Families. The audit presented to lawmakers in Charleston says the bureau lacks a sense of urgency in recruiting, building and retaining a workforce capable of timely investigations.
While it has been aware of and studied the turnover problem for six years, the audit concludes, the bureau has done nothing to change the situation.
According to published reports, interim bureau commissioner Susan Hage told lawmakers that she is taking the report seriously and committed to change. She also acknowledged the bureau should be farther along in addressing 14 recommendations.
But state Sen. Donald Cookman, a Hampshire County Democrat and retired circuit court judge, called the situations laid out in the audit "appalling."
While state law requires CPS workers to respond to abuse and neglect reports within 14 days - and within 72 hours in cases of imminent danger - the audit found workers met that standard less than half the time.
In 2011, it said, only 48 percent of the cases were handled promptly.
A national report released last fall found that children are dying from abuse and neglect at a higher rate in West Virginia than in any other state, a problem that judges, social workers and others say is fueled by rampant substance abuse.
Though abuse and neglect reports have dropped nationally for five straight years, the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System found West Virginia had the highest death rate at 4.16 children per 100,000 in 2011.
Yet the audit says the bureau fails to conduct central reviews or disseminate that information.
"The Legislature and the public are not aware of the number of child deaths . reported each year within the CPS system," the audit said.
The bureau cannot even provide consistent figures for the number of employees, the audit found. They ranged from 435 to 478.
The audit also cited the lack of a centralized intake system for abuse and neglect reports. Currently, 120 people around the state take those calls. The audit suggests 55 - one for each county - might work better.
Hage said high employee turnover is part of the reason CPS has been unable to change.
The audit says the rate is 28 percent among employees but 54 percent among trainees, many of whom leave because the pay it too low and the case loads are too heavy.
Recruitment is also challenged by regulations for social work licenses and rules that eliminate people with certain academic fields of study.
The audit recommends, among other things, that bureau leaders develop a long-term workforce plan for CPS, improve its exit-interview system and conduct an annual child fatality review. It says the findings should be sent in an annual report to both Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and the Legislature.