CHARLESTON β€” Child advocates who filed a federal lawsuit alleging West Virginia's overwhelmed foster care system has failed to protect children have asked the judge to reject a motion to dismiss the case.

In filings last week, attorneys for national foster child advocacy organization A Better Childhood, Disability Rights of West Virginia and the Shaffer and Shaffer law firm argue that the state's foster care system is ``in a state of chaos,`` news sources report.

``The opioid epidemic toppled what was already a collapsing system,'' they argue. ``By willfully disregarding the continuing failures of West Virginia's child welfare system, (the state has) jeopardized the safety and well-being of the 6,800 foster children.''

The advocacy groups filed the suit on Sept. 30 on behalf of 12 children in West Virginia's foster care system. The suit alleges that the Department of Health and Human Resources houses children in hotels, shelters, institutions or out of state and that the children are subject to abuse and neglect.

The state last month filed a motion to dismiss the class-action case, with DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch saying the state continues to make substantive changes to its system.

The state argued in court filings that the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia has no jurisdiction over county circuit court decisions regarding placement of children in foster care.

According to the complaint, West Virginia led the nation in removing children from families in 2018, institutionalizing 71 percent of children between the ages of 12 and 17, and sending more than 300 children out of state.

Recent legislative audits also found that DHHR's Child Protective Services is unable to meet required timeframes for investigating abuse and neglect cases due to high employee turnover. DHHR's Bureau of Children and Families also doesn't make sure social workers maintain their licenses and doesn't conduct background checks for social workers, the audits state.

The state settled a 2015 complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice regarding DHHR's treatment of foster children with intellectual and developmental disabilities, but the advocacy groups argue that the settlement is weak and unenforceable. They also put little faith in a new contract between DHHR and Aetna Better Health to manage foster care medical and behavioral health services.

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