Friday, December 22, 2006

Hardin C. child welfare system described as 'a holy mess'

Hardin child welfare office investigated
Yetter, Deborah. Louisville Courier-Journal, Jan. 7, 2006, pg. A1.

Kentucky officials are investigating alleged wrongdoing at the Hardin County child welfare office after youth advocates complained of problems, including the hasty adoption of children removed from homes.

"At this point these are only allegations. We aren't assuming any wrongdoing on the part of our staff, but we are taking it very seriously," said Eugene Foster, who oversees social services for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

Foster said he has asked the cabinet's inspector general to conduct the investigation.

The investigation and allegations are the latest setbacks for the state's child protection system.

On Wednesday, the same group, Kentucky Youth Advocates, released a broader report stating that Kentucky's children are at risk of abuse and neglect because of an underfunded system of demoralized social workers struggling under growing caseloads.

And Thursday, The Courier-Journal reported that a juvenile judge last week jailed a social worker for contempt of court.

Some lawmakers and a Louisville civil-rights activist criticized that decision yesterday, calling on the state to put more resources into social services - and one questioned why the cabinet didn't work to get the worker out of jail.

"She spent hours in the Jefferson County Jail," said state Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville.

Cabinet officials had said they don't have a policy for representing workers in such situations.

Children's advocates said the alleged problems appear to have resurfaced after the cabinet undertook a major effort to upgrade the program following similar problems five years ago.

Alleged problems include failure of workers to follow up on abuse and neglect complaints and pushing children into adoption too quickly rather than trying to keep families together.

Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, which helped conduct the survey, noted that one caller described the Hardin County child welfare system as "a holy mess."

"Our biggest concern is that's not an exaggeration - that's a reality," he said.

Advocates said they couldn't provide specifics of allegations because they had promised confidentiality to the 255 people who responded to their survey. But they said the highest volume of complaints - about 25 percent - came from Hardin County.

The advocates said they also will ask officials with the federal Health and Human Services Department to investigate, said David Richart, author of the report.

State officials yesterday acknowledged that social worker caseloads might be higher than they said previously. Foster earlier in the week said social worker caseloads are about 16 to 17 families per worker -within the acceptable range of Kentucky's national accrediting agency.

But some social workers - particularly in Jefferson County - are reporting caseloads of 25 or 26 families.

Foster said yesterday his numbers might have been out of date."I don't want to tell you that it's not a problem,'' he said of worker caseloads. "It is an ongoing problem."

Yesterday, more people protested a judge's decision to jail the social worker with the Cabinet for Health and Family Services for contempt of court after she argued against releasing a troubled teenage girl because the cabinet couldn't find a place for her.

"If we arrested a nurse because we don't have enough hospital beds, we'd all be outraged," Wayne said. Wayne criticized the state for failing to provide adequate resources for the cabinet.

Six lawmakers sent a letter to Mark D. Birdwhistell, secretary of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, asking him to investigate. State Sen. Gerald Neal, D-Louisville, and five other lawmakers, all Democrats, signed the letter.

And the Rev. Elmer Ross called yesterday for the resignation of Jefferson District Judge Michelle Stengel, who ordered social worker Tricia Mack jailed Dec. 29. He was representing the Louisville African American Think Tank, a civil-rights group."Locking up Tricia is not the answer," he said.

Stengel said yesterday she will not resign. Stengel had declined to comment previously because juvenile court proceedings are confidential. But she agreed to speak yesterday after the girl who was the subject of the hearing waived confidentiality through her lawyer.

Stengel said she was frustrated that the cabinet doesn't have sufficient placement for juveniles but said that wasn't why she jailed Mack for 30 hours. Rather, she said, she found Mack to be disrespectful and said Mack rolled her eyes and muttered something under her breath after the judge admonished her.

That isn't picked up on a tape of the proceedings, but Stengel said she heard Mack mutter.

Mack said in an interview that she walked away after being scolded and she said "Mm-hmm."


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