Friday, December 22, 2006

Kentucky adoption rates up, reunification rates down

Adoption policies under review -
Criticism prompts creation of panel to assess state's procedures
Lexington Herald-Leader, July 6, 2006, pg. A1.

Amid a firestorm of public scrutiny, Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services Secretary Mark D. Birdwhistell has appointed a 12-member blue ribbon panel to explore the agency's adoptions procedures.

The group will review the processes that lead to terminations of parental rights and adoption of the children in the state's child welfare system.

"Members of this group represent the community advocacy groups, the state legislature, the court system, academics and social workers," Birdwhistell said in a press release yesterday. "These are the people who are invested in the lives of our foster children who await adoption. Their ideas and perspective will help us strengthen the policy that guides our work."

Tom Emberton Jr., commissioner of the Department for Community Based Services, the office that oversees public adoptions, said the recent public discussion of state adoptions has prompted the task force.

In January, child advocates released a report alleging that children were removed from their biological families too quickly in Kentucky's push to increase state adoptions.

"This panel will help us make sure it's a fair and equitable process," Emberton said in an interview. In a press release, he said, "We are asking for an honest assessment of our practices."

Meanwhile, the Cabinet released numbers that show the number of foster children who are adopted has increased from 4 percent in 2001 to 13.4 percent in 2005. Over the same five years, the number of children leaving foster care to be reunited with their biological parents dropped from 56.6 percent to 46.1 percent.

And fewer children were being placed with relatives after leaving foster care, from 32.4 percent in 2001 to 30.7 percent last year.

Kentucky's office of inspector general is investigating the allegations of so-called "quick-trigger" adoptions, and at least one legislative panel has held a hearing on the allegations. One social worker in Hardin County has been placed on paid leave pending investigation of her actions, and Inspector General Robert J. Benvenuti III has said other suspensions and criminal prosecutions could result.

At a recent legislative hearing, parents told lawmakers that social workers don't fully investigate allegations before removing children and placing them in prospective adoptive homes, that court-appointed attorneys provide poor representation and that parents are given few services that would help reunite them with their children.

Emberton said that issues related to removing children from their biological parents will also be scrutinized by the new Blue Ribbon Panel on Adoptions.

The group's first meeting will be scheduled for later this summer, but officials did not say how long the task force might be convened.

Emberton said he asked for the inspector general's investigation and wants to correct any problems that exist. But he has said that most cases are handled appropriately.

Cabinet officials say the focus on increasing state adoptions of foster children is the result of a federal law passed in the late 1990s. The law, created to keep children from languishing in foster care, gives states financial bonuses for expediting adoptions. Kentucky was sanctioned by the federal government in 2003 for not completing enough state adoptions, but the state has since increased its numbers.

In an interview last week, Emberton disputed reports that state social workers received days off as a reward for expediting state adoptions. He said that case workers can receive one or two days off for an overall good job performance evaluation, but not specifically for completing an adoption.

Also, several grass-roots organizations of families and advocates have sprung up around the state -- in Louisville, Lexington, Hazard, Grayson and the Somerset area -- to combat what they describe as unjust removal of children from their biological families.

Fewer children returning to families
Numbers provided by the state show that, on leaving state foster care, more children are being adopted and fewer children are being reunited with biological parents and extended family members.


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