Friday, December 22, 2006

Foster care is a lottery with kids' lives

Report: Luck of the draw governs kids in state's care
Kreimer, Peggy. Ketucky Post, Jan. 4, 2006, pg. K1.

Children in the protective custody of the state are unwittingly involved in a dangerous "lottery" with their lives, says a report released today in Frankfort.

The report, called "The Other Lottery," is the result of a six-month review of Kentucky's child protection system by the National Institute on Children, Youth and Families Inc. and Kentucky Youth Advocates. The report finds the child protection system is underfunded, staff are overwhelmed by growing caseloads, and children and families in the system have to rely on the luck of the draw and a fortunate address.

Depending on where families live and which workers are assigned their cases, their care can range from excellent to dangerously inadequate, said David Richart, director of the National Institute on Children, Youth and Families Inc., who released the report.

In preparing the report, the agencies found so many complaints against workers of one county that Richart said he will hold a separate announcement on Friday detailing problems in what Richart calls "a county in which things have gone amuck."

He would not reveal the county in advance of Friday's announcement, but he said it is not in Northern Kentucky.

In researching the report, the Kentucky Youth Advocates set up a telephone and e-mail hotline for people across the state to comment on their experiences with state workers in the Department of Community-Based Services, which handles child protection.

The report organizers also conducted individual interviews and used information from Legislative Research Commission reports, federal Kentucky Citizens Review Panels for Child Protective Services reports, reports of the Kentucky Child Fatality Review System and Citizen Foster Care Review Board reports, state records and previous investigation reports that the two agencies compiling this report had done in the past.

The hotline responses came from state workers, families, school officials, court monitors, law enforcement and other professionals. Of the 255 responses, close to 18 percent detailed problems in a single county.

The report gives strength to allegations of dangerous practices in Northern Kentucky that were brought to light by three lawsuits filed by state social workers in Northern Kentucky last year, claiming children were endangered by pressure to complete placement in adoptive or foster homes where investigators feared they would be abused.

"We found pockets, including Northern Kentucky, where there was evidence of expediting adoptions" at the expense of the safety of children, Richart said.

The state received more than $1 million in federal bonuses for adoptions -- a practice that may be encouraging what one worker called "quick trigger" decisions to remove children from families and place them in adoptive homes.

"This may be the first report in the nation that says this is in response to Kentucky getting adoption bonuses," Richart said.

The report concludes with a plea to the General Assembly and the governor: "Isn't it time, once and for all, for abused and neglected children to get the attention they deserve and to put their interests above other lobby groups?"

Richart said the report it is not a universal condemnation of the state's social workers and child protection workers.

"Most social workers do very worthy work under extremely difficult circumstances. By and large, the problems we identify are systemic in nature," he wrote in the report summary.

The report includes pages of comments praising state workers for their compassion and competence.

One worker with a family court program said, "There are workers out there that are priceless and full of more compassion than conceivable and not all of those I refer to are pre-burn out. Some have been doing it for a very long time."

The report outlines seven finding of problems and concerns:
* The welfare of children is largely a matter of chance.
* The program is notoriously underfunded.
* The organizational culture erodes the attitudes of workers, affecting how they deal with each other and the public.
* There is a question whether abused or neglected children may be "fast tracked" into adoptive homes.
* Ongoing issues that the state must continue to address include disproportionate minority representation, how spouse abuse is dealt with regarding child placement, and child sexual abuse.
* Personnel issues that stifle hiring quality staff, create more turnover and get in the way of disciplinary actions.
* In one area of the state, "unprofessional and unethical behavior seems to be the norm."


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