Friday, December 22, 2006

80% of child removals related to drug or alcohol abuse by family members

Child welfare issues explored
Substance abuse plays a major role
Yetter, Deborah. Louisville Courier-Journal, Sept. 16, 2006, pg. B1.

FRANKFORT, Ky. —– Eight out of 10 children removed from homes in Kentucky had lived with adults who were abusing drugs and alcohol.

And half of all cases investigated by state social workers involve drug or alcohol abuse.

Complaints of suspected child abuse or neglect rose to 61,000 in 2005 — up 14,000 from the previous year, with much of the increase related to substance abuse, said Tom Emberton Jr., Kentucky's commissioner for social services.

"It's a horrific problem," Emberton told a task force investigating Kentucky's child welfare system. "Substance abuse is our No. 1 issue."

Emberton said the department is considering additional programs to combat substance abuse to try to reduce caseloads and the number of children in state care — now about 7,000.

Also yesterday, three family court judges said the court system is straining under a growing number of abuse and neglect cases, many involving substance abuse.

Court budgets haven't kept up with the demand and community resources aimed at keeping families together — such as counseling and substance abuse treatment — are shrinking, Jefferson Family Court Judge Patricia Walker FitzGerald said.

She and two other family court judges who spoke yesterday — Larry Thompson of Pike County and Bruce Petrie of Boyle County — didn't provide numbers but agreed their work is increasing.

"Our case load is going up exponentially," FitzGerald said. "Our social service agencies are just strapped beyond belief."

The task force was created earlier this year after complaints about the child welfare system, including allegations that poor families are treated unfairly and state social workers and judges are too quick to remove children from troubled families and place them for adoption.

The goal is to identify problems and recommend solutions.

The judges said terminating parents' rights is a measure they use only when it appears there is no hope of returning the child safely home.

"That's the equivalent in my court of a death penalty case," Thompson said.

Several family members unhappy with state social service decisions attended yesterday, including Dawn Zabad of Louisville. She says she's concerned about delays in her effort to regain custody of her daughter, 15 months.

"I just want to be part of everything that's going on," she said.

Also present was a Lexington grandmother who held up a sign throughout the two-hour meeting protesting the state's decision to remove three grandchildren from her home.

Brenda Tipton said she was caring for the children after their mother lost custody because of drug abuse.

But in June 2005, a state social worker had them removed because Tipton allowed the mother to visit although she was supposed to have no contact with the children, Tipton said.

Tipton said she's promised she won't let that happen again but still can't regain custody. "I don't understand why they won't let these babies come home," she said of the children, 2 ½ -year -old twins and a 1 ½-year-old.

Emberton said he is aware of Tipton's case and has asked a member of his staff to see if there's anything his department can do.

"We've been in contact with her and are working with her," he said. "It's a difficult situation. Like many cases, there are some significant issues."

The task force is scheduled to meet next Oct. 19.


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