West Virginia's first ombudsman for state's heavily burdened foster care system resigns

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — The first ombudsman of West Virginia's heavily burdened foster care system has resigned.

Pamela Woodman-Kaehler’s resignation will take effect June 6, the state Department of Health announced in a statement. Woodman-Kaehler said she was “choosing to pursue a new opportunity,” but did not provide more details.

Woodman-Kaehler said the ombudsman’s program is “exceptionally well positioned to serve West Virginia’s foster care system. Elizabeth Hardy, deputy director of the foster care ombudsman’s office, will serve as acting director after Woodman-Kaehler’s departure.

The ombudsman position was created by the state Legislature in 2019 to help investigate complaints and collect data about the state’s foster care system. Largely overwhelmed by the opioid epidemic in a state with the most overdose deaths per capita, West Virginia also has the highest rate of children in foster care — currently more than 6,000 in a state of around 1.8 million.

The state is facing a massive ongoing class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of foster care children in 2019. The suit alleged that children's needs were going unmet because of a shortage of case workers, an over-reliance on institutionalization and a lack of mental health support.

In 2023, state lawmakers passed a law expanding and specifying the foster care ombudsman’s duties because they were concerned about her ability to independently investigate deaths, abuse and neglect involving children and the juvenile justice system.

In 2024, lawmakers voted to make the Office of Inspector General — which houses the foster care ombudsman — an independent agency. It was tasked with working to eliminate fraud, waste, and abuse from both within and outside the Department of Health, Department of Human Services, and Department of Health Facilities. Until this year, the three departments were formerly all under the umbrella agency Department of Health and Human Resources.

During a news conference Wednesday, Gov. Jim Justice dismissed a question from a reporter asking whether Woodman-Kaehler was leaving because of a problem with the office.

“She got a better job, guys. I mean, that’s all there is to it,” he said. “I mean, this business of attacking people and everything and, you know, just, you know, digging into everything, coming and going. I mean, if she’s telling us she got a better job, why don’t we celebrate that?”

Justice said Woodman-Kaehler did an “incredible job” in the post. Ann Urling, interim inspector general for the departments of health, human services and health facilities, said in a statement that "the state appreciates her work and her passion for serving the children of this state."

"We wish her well in all of her future endeavors,” Urling said.

Woodman-Kaehler had been a child protective services worker in Harrison County and was the state coordinator for a federally mandated review panel of the state’s Bureau of Children and Families. At the time she became foster care ombudsman, she was also a certified foster parent and had also trained people to become foster parents.