Friday, December 22, 2006

60% of KY children removed due to neglect, not abuse

Foster adoptions under review -
Some say parents' rights ended for wrong reasons
Honeycutt-Spears, Valarie. Lexington Herald-Leader, April 30, 2006, pg. A1.

LOUISVILLE -- A shoe and a hair bow.

That was all Allie Kiger had left of her four young children after state child-protection workers took them without warning from their day-care one day in 1999 and placed them with an adoptive foster family, said Kiger, of Lexington.

Virginia Durrance's story cuts even deeper. Her teenage daughter was diagnosed with cancer after state workers in Georgetown took the girl five years ago. Durrance said she learned of the girl's death in 2004 only when she read her obituary in the newspaper.

Kiger and Durrance were among several women who told of losing their children to foster care, or losing their parental rights, at The Truth Commission, a conference in Louisville yesterday that was sponsored by Women in Transition.

The state Office of Inspector General is investigating whether children -- those whose mothers are domestic-violence victims, and others -- are being inappropriately removed from their families to increase state foster-care adoptions and federal financial bonuses. The question is also under review by the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, by various grass-roots organizations and, most recently, by Gov. Ernie Fletcher.

The state legislature is also being asked to investigate.

"This witnessing of truth is so important," said Deb Miller, director of public policy for Louisville-based Kentucky Youth Advocates, after she heard the women speak. "We need to spread this word if we are going to make fundamental changes to state child protection services."

'Quick-trigger' adoptions
Kentucky and other states are under pressure from the federal government to get children into adoptive homes quickly, under laws designed to keep children from languishing in foster care. The law requires that termination of parental rights be initiated if a child was in foster care 15 of the previous 22 months. The end result is that parents have less time to fix the problems that brought state child-protection workers into their lives.

In January, KYA and the National Institute for Children, Youth and Families in Louisville released a report, The Other Kentucky Lottery. It raised concerns about "quick-trigger" foster care adoptions and inappropriate removals by the Cabinet for Families and Children. Cabinet officials asked the state inspector general to investigate.

Earlier this month, domestic-violence officials told the Herald-Leader that the cabinet had removed the children of about 50 women served by the Bluegrass Domestic Violence Program. Domestic-violence workers from other parts of the state also allege that the cabinet has been telling women that shelters aren't an appropriate atmosphere for children.

Gov. Ernie Fletcher, as a result, met with cabinet officials last week to ask about allegations that the cabinet is increasingly taking children away from women who have done nothing more than seek help for domestic violence.

David Fleenor, senior policy advisor for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, assured Fletcher "that the Cabinet was not," said Vikki Franklin, a cabinet spokeswoman.

Sherry Currens, executive director of the Kentucky Domestic Violence Association, said she was not aware that the governor had discussed the issue with cabinet officials.

Fletcher's press secretary Jodi Whitaker said Fletcher expects to hold a follow-up briefing.

Tom Emberton Jr., the commissioner of the Division of Community Based Services, said that he has initiated contact with those involved with the domestic-violence issue, and that he has asked staff members to look into the process and report back to him. No findings have come out yet, said Franklin, the cabinet spokeswoman.

Emberton said the vast majority of staff members do their job by the book, but the investigation is necessary to ensure that all staff members follow cabinet policy.

Meanwhile, David Richart, executive director of the National Institute on Children, Youth and Families, said he will ask members of the state legislature's Health and Welfare Committee to hold a hearing on the issue of termination of parental rights and foster care adoptions, including the allegations that the cabinet is removing the children of domestic-violence victims.

Grass-roots movement
At the same time, biological parents and advocates from across Kentucky are initiating a grass-roots movement to bring about policy changes for child protective services. One group is active in south-central Kentucky and another has started in Perry County.

Jennifer Jewell, executive director of Women in Transition, the Louisville group that sponsored the conference, said she started collecting information from biological families several months ago when she realized that 60 percent of the children being removed by state child protection workers were not victims of physical and sexual abuse, but were deemed as being neglected by their families.

The staff members at Women in Transition are finding that neglect, as defined by many state workers and court officials, often means that parents don't have enough money or appropriate housing, Jewell says. And when faced with termination of parental rights, many parents can't afford a lawyer who is responsive, she says.

Women in Transition will host a candlelight vigil at 5 p.m. May 11 at the L&N Building at Ninth Street and Broadway in Louisville, for families who have lost their children to termination of parental rights or foster care.

By this summer, the group hopes to determine what policy changes need to take place at the state and federal level, Jewell says.

Richart said some front-line state social workers are at odds with the decisions made by supervisors who push expedited adoptions. And Richart says it's important to note that many removals of children by the cabinet are appropriate.

"There are families whose parental rights should be terminated," Richart says, "but it needs to be a selected and well-thought-out process, and not affected by federal financial adoption bonuses."

Fighting for custody
After speaking at yesterday's conference, Kiger explained that she met all of the goals social workers set for her, including protecting her children from an alleged sexual abuser and paying child support to the state while her children were in foster care.

"But they terminated my rights anyway when I asked for state medical assistance. They came and took them while I was at work, saying I wasn't cognitively and financially able to care for my four children," Kiger said.

Kiger is not allowed to see her four oldest children, and she says she doesn't even know where they are. But she said that when the cabinet took her fifth child at birth, she fought hard and convinced court officials that she should regain custody of her.

Durrance has regained custody of her younger daughter and has moved from Georgetown to Louisville, where she is volunteering in a program that helps other parents in her situation.

She said the cabinet wanted her younger daughter to be adopted, but she said the child's foster mother in Georgetown spoke out because she thought Durrance deserved another chance.

Durrance also credits child-protection workers and advocates in Louisville with helping her find housing and giving her a chance to succeeed.

Before that, Durrance said, "I guess I was naive about what the cabinet could do and what they wanted from me."


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