Friday, December 22, 2006

Kentucky foster care is overloaded and underfunded

System for abused kids blasted
Kentucky Post, Jan. 18, 2006, pg. A6.

State social workers and child advocates said the state's system of housing abused and neglected children is underfunded and overloaded with cases.

They said an incident last month in Louisville where a judge jailed a state social worker for contempt highlighted the problem. The program's "needs are great," partly from a dramatic increase in children removed from homes, said Mark Birdwhistell, secretary of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

The state pays to care for about 6,700 children removed from homes, up about 1,800 from six years ago. Cabinet officials blame drug abuse -- namely methamphetamine -- for much of the increase.

Social workers said they are increasingly frustrated about the difficulty of finding placements for the children, particularly those with emotional or behavioral problems. The cabinet has places to house children, ranging from placement with a relative or foster family to a residential center or psychiatric hospital. But it has more children than slots and not enough money for more, Birdwhistell said.

The cabinet spends about $318 million a year on social services for children. Birdwhistell said he has asked Gov. Ernie Fletcher for more money, but didn't say how much more. He said the money would be used to pay for more places to house abused and neglected children and to put more workers in the field to handle cases.

In his budget proposal to state lawmakers Tuesday night, Fletcher proposed spending $7.4 million on an "Alternatives for Children" program that would provide care for children under state custody.

State Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, a social worker in private practice, said the system must be adequately funded. "We are trying to get by on pennies instead of dollars," he said.

State social worker Tricia Mack was jailed Dec. 29 after urging a judge to keep a troubled teenage girl incarcerated. Jefferson District Judge Michelle Stengel said she was frustrated that the state could not find a place to house a troubled teenager. Stengel said she jailed Mack because of her disrespectful tone and demeanor.

"It's been boiling for a long time," said Patricia Pregliasco, a Jefferson County social worker who helps investigate cases of children who are allegedly sexually abused.

"As Tricia learned the other day, we're the first people to be blamed when something goes wrong."

Gordon Brown, president and CEO of the Home of the Innocents in Louisville, said the demand for places for abused and neglected children has grown so rapidly that his facility stays full -- including a 45-bed emergency shelter.


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