Friday, December 22, 2006

How old are the children who wait over 6 years for a home?

Kentucky looks to speed up adoptions
Children have been removed by state
Yetter, Deborah. Louisville Courier-Journal, Dec. 15, 2006, pg. A1.

FRANKFORT, Ky. — Children removed from homes because of abuse or neglect are waiting for adoption longer than federal guidelines allow, a new state audit has found.

The average wait in Kentucky is three years, but it varies widely among counties, with some children waiting up to six years for a permanent home. Federal guidelines call for the state to move toward adoption if the child has been in foster care 15 months.

"The one thing we have to come back to is the number of young people whose lives are at stake," state Auditor Crit Luallen said yesterday while presenting her findings in Frankfort. "They are not just numbers."

Regarding another controversial issue, Luallen said the year-long review makes no conclusions about whether state officials are too hasty to remove children from homes and place them for adoption, as some families and advocates have alleged.

Rather, it examines the complicated legal process toward adoption once a child is removed from a home, Luallen told the Blue Ribbon Panel on Adoption, which is studying ways to improve the state's child welfare system.

The panel has been meeting for several months with the goal of recommending changes in the state's adoption and foster-care system in next year's legislative session.

Advocates and parents critical of the system said yesterday that Luallen's findings underscore their complaints that the system is arbitrary and inconsistent.

"It depends on where you live and what judge you draw and what social worker you draw," said David Richart, a longtime family advocate.

Mark D. Birdwhistell, chairman of the panel and secretary of the Health and Family Services Cabinet, agreed the social service system needs to develop consistent standards.

"We have pockets of problems," he said. "We need to address consistency across the state."

He also said that the panel has agreed to hear from more parents who believe they were treated unfairly by the child welfare system. He plans to schedule a public hearing next month.

That pleased Mary Henderson and Benita Hollie, both single mothers from Lexington, who attended yesterday and say their children were unfairly removed by the system.

"I feel much better after today," said Henderson, who has regained custody of her four children. Henderson said she was worried the panel would overlook parents' concerns.

Changes proposed
Luallen said yesterday the state needs to do more to promote adoption in cases where parental rights have been permanently terminated.

She recommended a central office and hot line where people interested in adopting could get information and encouragement.

She also suggested a broad public awareness campaign to let more people know about the growing number of children in state care available for adoption. About 7,400 children are in state custody and about 2,000 are available for adoption because parents' rights have been terminated.

Luallen also proposed Kentucky lawmakers create a "birth father registry" as 23 states have done that requires fathers with an interest in the child's welfare to register. That way they can receive legal notice of possible adoption.

Luallen said the audit found that some adoptions are delayed when birth fathers surface at the last minute and object.

That recommendation drew interest from members of the panel, including David Cozart, head of a Lexington family advocacy group. He noted many child welfare cases involve single mothers.

"Too often we refer to the 'parent' as if there's a bunch of Immaculate Conception going on," he said.

Luallen said her audit found counties with family courts — which specialize in abuse, neglect, child removal and divorce and custody cases — tend to move cases faster and operate more efficiently. Kentucky eventually plans to expand family courts statewide; they now are in 44 counties.

More pay, training needed
The panel also heard from Jefferson County Family Court Judges Patricia Walker FitzGerald and Stephen George, who offered several proposals to help the court system.

FitzGerald said the state needs to pay lawyers appointed to represent poor parents and children in family court more than a flat rate of $500 a case. In counties without family courts, such lawyers get only $250 a case in district court.

She suggested the legislature mandate a minimum level of family court training for judges in areas such as child abuse and neglect and termination of parental rights. Judges must get annual training but no family law classes are required.

And she said the state needs to ensure poor families have lawyers. Currently, judges are not required to appoint parents a lawyer at the initial court hearing on whether to temporarily remove children for abuse or neglect.

George said one way to make the family courts more accountable would be to eliminate the confidentiality required by law.

"Our courts are closed," he said. "If there is transparency, it's a different ballgame."

Key recommendations by Auditor Crit Luallen for speeding adoptions of children in state care:
--Launch a broad public awareness campaign to make people aware of the children available for adoption and how the state can help.

--Create a toll-free number for information about adoptions and create a trained staff to handle such calls and encourage people to follow up.

--Identify and correct points of delay in the complicated legal proceedings to terminate a parent's rights and place a child for adoption.

--Create a birth father registry so fathers can register and be notified of legal proceedings to avoid last-minute challenges that delay adoptions.


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