Friday, December 22, 2006

Cabinet suppressed any information contrary to goal of adoption

Adoption hearing points finger at state cabinet
Agencies accused of taking children from biological families
Honeycutt-Spears, Valarie. Lexington Herald-Leader, June 22, 2006, pg. A1.

FRANKFORT -- In a packed hearing room, Mary Henderson described to legislators how the state nearly took her four children away forever.

The state's goal, the Lexington woman said, was to allow a couple grieving the loss of their own child to adopt Henderson's children. In the process, Henderson told lawmakers, the Cabinet for Health and Family Services "suppressed any information that was contrary to the goal of adoption."

But Henderson got lucky, her attorney said, after Fayette Circuit Judge Tim Philpot ended the state's attempt to terminate her parental rights. Henderson's four children have since been returned to her.

After hearing nearly three hours of tough accusations about flaws in the way Kentucky removes children from biological parents and places them into adoptive homes, state lawmakers yesterday asked critics to suggest new laws and policies.

Legislators said they want more information about how the state is handling such cases.

Child advocates, biological parents and foster parents told the Interim Health and Welfare Committee that some state social workers can be unyielding and vindictive, that some court-appointed attorneys provide terrible representation and that removals from biological families often occur without just cause.

Also, state child protection officials acknowledged under questioning that social workers and courts sometimes order impoverished parents to pay for their own counseling and treatment if they want to regain custody of their children.

"We need to determine where the holes are and actively seek solutions," said Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington.

Westrom said that, in the coming weeks and months, she intends to listen to both sides -- child protection officials and critics -- and hopes that the two groups would share information and "find out what the realities are."

Yesterday's hearing was held amid complaints that, because of federal pressure to increase the number of Kentucky foster children who are adopted, some administrators in the cabinet are recommending to courts that the rights of biological parents be terminated too quickly or without just cause.

Kentucky's office of inspector general is investigating the allegations of so-called "quick-trigger" adoptions. One social worker in Hardin County has been placed on paid leave pending investigation of her actions, and Inspector General Robert J. Benvenuti III has said other suspensions and criminal prosecutions could result.

Eugene Foster, a top official in Kentucky's Cabinet for Health and Family Services, told legislators that even one case in which biological families were treated unjustly was too many. But he and other officials said the majority of cases are handled in the best interest of Kentucky's children.

Westrom told cabinet officials that at future hearings she wants to know whether domestic violence victims are losing custody of their children and whether some biological parents didn't get their children back even though they did everything the cabinet asked of them.

Henderson, who first told her story in a Herald-Leader article in April, and her attorney, T. Robin Cornette, told the legislative panel that state social worker supervisors retaliated against them and that a social worker who supported Henderson was fired.

David and Anita Gibson, who were foster parents for Henderson's children, said the state closed their foster home essentially because they supported Henderson by allowing Henderson's mother to visit the children. Cabinet officials declined to comment.

Cornette and Henderson told lawmakers that cabinet officials appeared to favor another prospective adoptive family that had recently suffered the death of a child, so much so that cabinet administrators allowed that family to move with the children to Illinois, even though Henderson's parental rights had not been terminated.

Henderson also told legislators, however, that the cabinet initially was correct in taking her children from her in 2004 because at the time she was abusing alcohol and prescription drugs.

But she said she sought treatment and did everything the state asked her to do to regain custody of her children -- a fact that treatment specialists backed up in court. Despite that, the state persisted in its attempt to terminate her parental rights.

After the testimony, Sen. Tom Buford, R-Nicholasville, said he thought legislators from the Lexington area should meet with biological parents who think they had been treated unfairly by the cabinet and try to help them.

David Richart, one of the state's leading child advocates and co-author of a report that has led to the state inspector general's investigation into child removals, said he has much evidence to support the fact that "quick-trigger" state adoptions are occurring in Kentucky.

Richart, executive director of the Louisville-based National Institute on Children, Youth and Families, said Kentucky officials are motivated to increase state adoptions to meet federal mandates, but not necessarily because cabinet officials want federal bonus money.

State officials said yesterday that, although they received $1 million in federal bonus money for increasing the number of state adoptions, they paid out $37 million to adoptive parents to meet the needs of children.

Richart said the state receives no federal bonuses for reunifying families. He said that as many as 15 percent of the removal or termination cases in the state are handled inappropriately, and that he gets many complaints that guardian ad litems, or court-appointed attorneys, stand by and do nothing while families are permanently separated.

Tom Emberton, commissioner of the cabinet's Division of Community Based Services, said he is open to making changes in the system, but that he has no proof at this point of quick-trigger adoptions.

Emberton said the cabinet is working with community leaders all over Kentucky to provide more services to biological families, especially those whose children have been removed because of parental drug use.

Mary Henderson of Lexington, who nearly had her four children placed in adoptive homes, testified yesterday in Frankfort.


Post a Comment

<< Home