Friday, December 22, 2006

Abused and neglected children housed in detention center due to lack of placements

Social services: More funding sought to help abused children
Yetter, Deborah. Louisville Courier-Journal, Jan. 17, 2006, pg. A1.

Jefferson District Judge Michelle Stengel said she was frustrated that the state could not find a place to house a troubled teenager.

A social worker, Tricia Mack, urged the judge to jail the girl.

Instead, Mack was jailed for contempt of court because of how she handled herself , the judge said.

The dispute has become a symbol for frustrated social workers who say they are struggling to protect and house abused and neglected children in an under funded system that is overloaded with cases.

Some lawmakers say the incident highlights the acute shortage of resources to care for children taken from homes because of abuse or neglect. And they say Gov. Ernie Fletcher could help solve the problem in the budget proposal he releases today .

The governor plans to honor that request, said Brett Hall, a Fletcher spokesman. Hall said he couldn't provide details, but "people looking forward to that will not be disappointed."

Mark Birdwhistell, secretary of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, said the program desperately needs money because "the needs are great," partly from a dramatic increase in children removed from homes.

The state pays to care for about 6,700 children removed from homes - up about 1,800 from six years ago.

Cabinet officials blame drug abuse - especially cheap, highly addictive methamphetamine - for much of the increase.

Social workers, including Mack, said they are increasingly frustrated about the difficulty of finding placements for children, particularly those with emotional or behavioral problems.

The cabinet has places to house children, ranging from placement with a relative or foster family to a residential center or psychiatric hospital. But it has more children than slots and not enough money for more, Birdwhistell said.

The cabinet spends about $318 million a year on social services for children.

Birdwhistell didn't say how much more money he has asked for but said he has made the governor aware of the need. He said the money would be used to pay for more places to house abused and neglected children and to put more workers in the field to handle cases.

State Rep. Jimmie Lee, D-Elizabethtown, has said the program needs at least a 20 percent budget increase.

And state Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, a social worker in private practice, said the system must be adequately funded.

"We are trying to get by on pennies instead of dollars," he said.

Judge, social workers agree on problem
Social workers say they are well-acquainted with the problem of finding suitable places for children, and the risk that presents for them.

"It's been boiling for a long time," said Patricia Pregliasco, a Jefferson County social worker who helps investigate cases of children who are allegedly sexually abused.

"As Tricia learned the other day, we're the first people to be blamed when something goes wrong."

Pregliasco said many social workers expressed their anger at a recent meeting to discuss their concerns. She said the gathering of more than 100 social workers gave Mack, who spent 30 hours in jail, a standing ovation.

Stengel said she jailed Mack because of her disrespectful tone and demeanor and muttered comments not captured on a tape of the proceeding.

But the tape did capture Stengel's courtroom comments in which she made it clear she is tired of state social workers coming to court to report the cabinet doesn't have a place to house a child. At one point she threatened to hold the cabinet in contempt.

"The cabinet has done this time and time again," Stengel told Mack at the hearing. "It's up to the cabinet - they've got to find a placement."

Wayne said the incident prompted lawmakers to meet with Birdwhistell.

"None of us want that to happen again," Wayne said.

The girl was eventually placed in a residential center for girls. Birdwhistell said she is doing well.

Overwhelmed workers
Foster parent Shaconda James, 35, of Louisville said the judge was blaming the wrong person by scolding the social worker.

"The workers are just overwhelmed," said James, who is foster mother to a 10-year-old boy she plans to adopt. "They don't have enough homes for these children to go to."

James, a caseworker in the child support office of the Jefferson County attorney's office, said she entered the foster -care program with the goal of helping one child but was repeatedly asked by workers to take more.

Pete Schuler, the lawyer who represented the girl at Stengel's hearing, has been a public defender for 24 years. He said the lack of placements for children he represents has gotten much worse in the past few years.

"It happens all the time," Schuler said.

Often, social workers seek to have the child held temporarily in the Louisville Metro Youth Detention Center to give the cabinet time to find a placement. But Schuler said the center, which houses juveniles charged with crimes, isn't the right place for children who are in court mainly because of abuse or neglect.

"It's a jail," he said. "You can't just leave kids in jail."

No room for children
Gordon Brown , president and CEO of the Home of the Innocents in Louisville, said the demand for places for abused and neglected children has grown so rapidly that his facility stays full - including a 45-bed emergency shelter for children.

"We are totally full, and we stay full most nights," he said.

Brown blames extreme poverty as well as drug and alcohol abuse for the growing number of children in care. He said officials need to take note of such children.

"They are very reliable indicators that there's something wrong with society," he said. "There are just more kids than there are places to help them."

Tricia Mack and other social workers are frustrated by the difficulty of finding placements for children.

Jefferson District Judge Michelle Stengel threatened to hold the Cabinet for Health and Family Services in contempt.

Cabinet Secretary Mark Birdwhistell said "the needs are great" for the program caring for abused and neglected children.


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