Friday, December 22, 2006

Financial incentive to expedite adoptions

Report: Child services underfunded
Push for adoption questioned in 'other lottery'
Honeycutt Spears, Valarie. Lexington Herald Leader, Jan. 5, 2006, pg. B1.

FRANKFORT - The question of whether Kentucky's child protection agency, motivated by federal money, is taking children from their biological parents and placing them for adoption without thorough investigation surfaced yesterday at a Frankfort news conference.

The issue came up as the Louisville-based National Institute on Children, Youth & Families Inc. and Kentucky Youth Advocates, two of the state's leading child advocacy groups, released a wide-ranging report called "The Other Kentucky Lottery."

Voicing concerns that the state's child protection services system is underfunded and unraveling, advocates said the quality of services provided to neglected and abused children is subject to geography and the luck of the draw as to which social worker is assigned.

If the problems aren't fixed, said David Richart, the National Institute director who wrote the report, "something bad is going to happen."

In response, Eugene Foster, undersecretary for the state Cabinet for Families and Children, said the cabinet is already working on several of the issues raised in the report, especially in the area of better training and supervision.

A six-month comprehensive review of the state's system, including a telephone and Internet hotline that drew 255 responses from across Kentucky, yielded several findings.

One of the most startling is that some poor families are allegedly being treated unfairly as Kentucky expedites adoption.

The federal push to discourage children from languishing in foster care might have had an unintended consequence, according to the review. The trend that existed in the 1990s to reunite children with their families has shifted toward removal.

The Department of Community-Based Services has become "too removal-oriented," the report said.Pat Moore, a state social worker until 2004, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in September 2005 alleging that foster children's placement in adoptive homes was more important than the children's safety and well-being.

The cabinet receives federal dollars based on the number of adoptions consummated.

The federal government provides financial bonuses to states to encourage them to increase adoptions. Kentucky received a $1.07 million bonus in 2003-2004 for increasing its number. According to the report, 699 children were adopted in the calendar year 2003-2004, compared with 494 children in 1999-2000.

Failure to meet the number of adoptions could mean a loss of federal dollars.

Foster said social workers' decisions about adoptions were not being driven by the fact that the state receives financial incentives from the federal government. He said the state provides money to families to cover adoption costs and, as a result, does not make a profit from the financial incentives.

Foster conceded that questions about the adoptions "are a point well taken."

He said cabinet officials are monitoring cases to make sure that adoptions are not taking place without valid reasons. "Whenever possible, we want to keep children in their homes," Foster said, as long as their safety can be assured.

Foster said the state is working on recruitment and retention for workers in Fayette County and other counties and also has begun a pilot program in Fayette County to keep children with their biological families. Statewide, from 1999 to 2004, there was a 21 percent increase in the number of children removed from their biological homes.

Meanwhile, the report also says that the system is dramatically underfinanced, an issue that has worsened in the last three years. Specifically, Richart said that 2 1/2 times more money is spent on keeping children in out-of-home care than on keeping them with their biological parents.

The advocates also noted yesterday that although problems are systematic and not specific to all social workers, workers still walk a fine line between acting too hastily and failing to pull at-risk children from abusive homes.

The decisions would be less arbitrary if the system was more adequately funded and policies were consistent statewide, said Deb Miller, director of Public Policy for Kentucky Youth Advocates.

The report singles out Fayette County as a place where social worker turnover is high and investigations and workloads significantly increased in January through March 2005 compared with those same months in 2004, including an "alarming 77 percent increase in the number of investigations involving substance abuse."

A federal official who oversees state child protection services said that Kentucky's performance has improved since 2003, when it met only one of seven federal performance measures.

Susan Orr, Associate Commissioner of the federal Children's Bureau, said Kentucky now meets at least six of the seven requirements and is close to meeting the last one, which involves reducing recurring incidents of abuse.

Orr said social workers are giving biological parents ample chances and warnings before placing their children with other, adoptive families. And she said workers' overall performance is improving.

'The Other Kentucky Lottery'
Some highlights from the report:
*Allegations of abuse account for only 11 percent of the total number of the children removed from their homes in 2004.

*Poverty and lack of parenting skills are the main reasons children are removed.

*Some state social workers are dismissive of other professionals such as teachers, school administrators, attorneys, nurses, and court monitoring volunteers.

*There are unnecessary delays in disciplining state social worker employees for illegal, unethical or substance abuse issues.

*Kentucky has several emerging social service problems. Among the worst is the growing number of children who are exposed to methamphetamines in their homes.

Debra Miller, director of public policy for Kentucky Youth Advocates, spoke with David Richart, executive director of the National Institute on Children, Youth and Families, during a press conference yesterday about the state's social service system.


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