Friday, December 22, 2006

Guardian ad litems accused of acting like 'potted plants' in court

Official expects reforms in foster care adoptions
Blue-ribbon panel should offer changes to lawmakers in 2007
Honeycutt-Spears, Valarie, Lexington Herald-Leader, Aug. 8, 2006, pg. A1.

FRANKFORT -- A blue-ribbon panel examining problems with foster care adoptions probably will propose new laws to the 2007 General Assembly, Cabinet for Health and Family Services Secretary Mark D. Birdwhistell said yesterday.

Birdwhistell, who chairs the panel and led its first meeting yesterday, said he has been receiving telephone calls at home from people with concerns that Kentucky is improperly removing children from their biological families in an effort to increase the number of state adoptions.

Though cabinet officials have previously said they have no proof that case workers and supervisors are expediting adoptions inappropriately, Birdwhistell said yesterday that he's not convinced of that.

"If there's not a problem, there's definitely a lot of concerns," he said.

Birdwhistell said he hoped the panel would restore the faith of people such as Mary Lee Sanders of Grayson County, who told panel members that she no longer had respect for the cabinet because her niece unnecessarily spent four months in state foster care.

"It is an agency who has the power to destroy families," Sanders said. She challenged the panel to set policies that help fix a family's problem before "it gets to termination of parental rights."

The 12-member group's goal is to review the process and current practices that lead to the termination of parental rights and adoption of children in the state's child welfare system and offer improvements.

The state's inspector general is investigating several allegations, which first surfaced in January when two of the state's leading child advocacy groups released a searing report.

Birdwhistell said the findings of the inspector general's investigation would most likely be incorporated into the proposals that the panel makes to the General Assembly.

And he responded to criticism that the panel did not include birth families, domestic-violence advocates and other key players by promising that their testimony would be heard.

The blue-ribbon panel members decided yesterday on some specific allegations that they will dig into at monthly meetings between now and the beginning of the 2007 legislature. Those areas include:

* Whether the state provides enough resources to families to prevent them from losing custody.

* Whether policies are carried out consistently by case workers across the state.

* Whether judges and lawyers, especially court-appointed lawyers assigned to poor families, get enough training in family law and consistently apply the knowledge they have.

* Whether domestic-violence victims are more likely to have their children taken away.

* Whether some parents are more susceptible to termination of parental rights because of their race, the age of their children or the supervisors who serve the regions in which they live.

Panel member and state Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington, raised a potential conflict-of-interest issue: Once a family is at risk of having the cabinet remove its children, she said, almost every non-profit agency that treats and assesses them is critically dependent on the cabinet for funds.

Birdwhistell said the panel would discuss concerns that the cabinet funds the UK Comprehensive Assessment and Training Services Project, called CATS, which conducts court-ordered assessments of parents in jeopardy of having rights terminated.

Allen Brenzel, a UK physician and professor and co-director of the program, was introduced yesterday as a consultant to the cabinet.

Brenzel said that even though the program is funded by the cabinet, the investigators provide independent evaluations to family court judges. As evidence of CATS' independence, he said that it recommends family reunification in 55 percent of cases.

Panel member Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, said the panel would also investigate allegations that the cabinet makes unfair and unrealistic requirements of families, such as mandating drug treatment when there was no history of drug use.

David Richart, executive director of the Louisville-based National Institute on Children, Youth and Families, who along with Brooks was author of a report that made public the problems, testified before the panel yesterday.

A big problem, said Richart, is that some court-appointed attorneys -- called guardian ad litems -- act like "potted plants" in court and do not adequately represent poor families.

Richart said that in addition to increasing the $500 paid per case to the guardian ad litems as the panel is discussing, those lawyers should also be held accountable for their work.

After the meeting, Bonnie Phillips of Leitchfield showed Birdwhistell a document that she said she has also shared with the state inspector general. Birdwhistell and other officials promised to investigate.

The letter, on cabinet letterhead, showed that Grayson County case workers corresponded with a foster parent about adopting Phillips' grandchildren weeks after a judge returned the children to Phillips' daughter.

"I want answers," Phillips said in an interview. "They traumatized my grandkids."


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