Friday, December 22, 2006

Allegations against Hardin Co. child protection system

Child protection cases probed
State to launch investigation
Kreimer, Peggy. Kentucky Post, Jan. 6, 2006, pg. a4.

The Kentucky Cabinet for Families and Children is launching an investigation into allegations against state workers in Hardin County.

The investigation comes in the wake of a report on problems in the child protection system. The report was released this week by the National Institute on Children, Youth and Families and the Kentucky Youth Advocates, two child advocate organizations.

The report, called "The 'other' Kentucky lottery," concluded that quality of care often is determined by where children live and who is chosen as their case worker or social worker.

One veteran state employee in Hardin County said, in an anonymous hotline message, that the management staff "use children and especially infant children as bartering items -- prospective adoptive families are chosen not by how the children will benefit from being in a current family situation -- .

Foster and adoptive families are chosen for placement of children, especially infants, by the fact that the agency 'owes' this family a favor."

Professionals in other agencies talked about lack of cooperation by state workers, workers who refuse to return phone calls or exchange needed information. State workers said their supervisors ignored recommendations and intimidated staff.

Complaints included high turnover of staff, children's cases being switched from worker to worker and cases being targeted for adoption rather than the best interests of the child and family.

The bulk of the report was released Tuesday. Author David Richart, founder of the National Institute on Children, Youth and Families, released the final and potentially most damning piece of the report this morning in Frankfort, detailing what he calls a pocket of dangerously unprofessional behavior in Hardin County.

"If wrongdoing is found, we're going to take decisive action," said State Cabinet for Families and Children Undersecretary Eugene Foster.

He said if the allegations prove founded, the state response could range from disciplinary action to legal action. "There has been some suggestion that reports may have been falsified," he said.

Some of the most troubling allegations are the fast-tracking of adoptions and preferential treatment, he said.

He and Richart cautioned that the report is not an indictment of all state workers. Richart noted that the fact that many of the complaints came from state workers indicates that many workers are conscientious and dedicated professionals.

In preparing the report, the two youth advocate groups set up a hotline to take anonymous telephone calls and e-mails about child protection services across the state. Of 255 responses, 45, or close to 18 percent, focused on Hardin County, Richart said.

The complaints about Hardin County were similar to complaints that surfaced in a 2001 report by the same groups called "Warning Signs."

Richart said in 2001, state officials tried to dismiss the report.

But he was heartened by the state's response this week, when he brought the report information to cabinet leaders, including Health and Family Services Inspector General Robert J. Benvenuti III, before today's announcement.

"To the (Ernie) Fletcher administration's credit, they are responding as if it is a serious issue," Richart said. "That is very unusual in my 35 years experience. This is very different from in 2001, when they went down (to Hardin County) grudgingly."

Health and Family Services has assigned a former Kentucky State Police trooper "with an impeccable reputation" to investigate the claims made in the report, Richart said. "They've put their bulldog on it."

The problems cited in Hardin County include workers who "fast-track" children into adoption, making it virtually impossible for youngsters to remain with biological families by setting nearly unattainable requirements for them and providing little or no support.

Some of the same problems surfaced on the hotline about child protection offices throughout the state.

In Northern Kentucky, three social workers are suing the state for retaliation after they tried to bring problems to light. They have charged supervisors pressured workers to meet quotas for adoptions and dangerous situations in potential adoptive homes were ignored.

The state receives federal bonuses for each child placed in an adoptive home, said Richart. He speculated that that money can influence decisions.

Richart, who taught social work students for years, said five former students from Northern Kentucky contacted him after the initial report was released on Tuesday and confirmed problems in Northern Kentucky.

Shane Sidebottom, a Covington attorney for the three Northern Kentucky social workers suing the state, said he expects more lawsuits to be filed.

"I've talked to several workers besides the three who have filed suits and I'll be meeting further with them in the next two weeks," said Sidebottom. "I anticipate more lawsuits. I expect at least one lawsuit in the next month, possibly two."

Sidebottom said if more workers want to file lawsuits, he will look into the possibility of requesting a class action lawsuit.

He said the upcoming lawsuits will challenge management practices of the Northern Kentucky regional office that directs social workers in several counties.

"There appears to be a policy of intimidation and workplace retaliation when workers don't emphasize numbers in paperwork over the safety and well-being of children," said Sidebottom.

"Several people who have called me are afraid to go forward (with lawsuits). They're that scared," he said.

Foster said the state wants workers to come forward. "We don't want workers to feel afraid," he said.


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