Friday, December 22, 2006

Kentucky not taking advantage of kinship care

Custody may go to foster care over kin-
Past infractions add up against grandparents, one instance illustrates
Honeycutt-Spears, Valarie. Lexington Herald-Leader, June 25, 2006, pg. A1.

When a seemingly innocent bump on Madison Scott's head turned out to be a hairline skull fracture, state social workers opened an investigation and took the 8-month-old girl from her parents.

Madison's grandparents, Crystal and Jim Verdenburgh, asked the state to place the girl with them while the case was investigated. And since physicians told social workers that the injury was accidental, the Verdenburghs assumed the girl would be coming to live with them.

Instead, social workers put Madison in foster care with a stranger for 29 days. Ultimately, the state agreed to let Madison live in her grandparents' home -- but only after her grandfather, a Lexington information-technology specialist, moved out.

Among the state's reasons for making Jim leave: A DUI conviction 12 years earlier, and equally old charges related to a marital argument that had been withdrawn by his wife and never prosecuted.

Last week, a family court prosecutor said the neglect case against Madison's parents should be dismissed because there was no evidence of abuse or neglect. Social workers gave the child back to her parents and allowed the grandparents full access to her.

But child advocates and Madison's family say the case illustrates a trend in which state social workers increasingly are placing children with strangers instead of extended family members, such as grandparents.

Madison's case unfolded as the state's inspector general is investigating allegations that some children are being improperly removed from their biological parents and placed too quickly with adoptive families.

Now, many grandparents are complaining that they are no longer given a chance to care for their grandchildren if the biological parents run into trouble. Grandparents say they are being passed over in favor of strangers, even though they can offer clean homes, adequate money and a deep bond with their grandchildren.

Some grandparents say children have been removed from them just because they request counseling or support services from the state. Others complain that any minor brush with the law, no matter how long ago it occurred, is being used against them.

"Grandparents practically have to walk on water to get temporary custody," said David Richart of Louisville's National Institute for Children, Youth and Families.

Richart is the co-author of a January report that led to the inspector general's investigation. He said state and federal law require the state to give preference to grandparents and extended family members. He said Cabinet for Health and Family Services decision-makers are justified in removing some children from biological parents, but are being unjust in other cases by "leaving no room for human frailty."

Crystal Verdenburgh, 46, said families should be aware of the scrutiny that can follow childhood injuries or everyday problems.

"I fully understand why they thought this should be investigated, but we had no clue that the system would allow this kind of injustice," she said. "We are normal, everyday people. We aren't rich, we aren't poor. We go to work. We are ordinary people."

Same standards apply
Officials with the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services say that extended family members must be held to the same standards as any other foster parents, and that state social workers make every effort to place children with their extended family members first.

But the leader of a national child-advocacy group says that a no-tolerance policy for past and minor problems can unjustly rule out extended family members.

"Officials think the apple doesn't fall far from the tree -- that grandparents could be the cause for their children's problems, but kinship care is safer than foster care with strangers," said Richard Wexler, executive director of the Virginia-based National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.

Wexler said the most recent data gathered by the Child Welfare League of America shows that Kentucky ranks lower than most states in placing children with grandparents and other extended family members.

Cabinet officials say they are in the process of doing their own analysis of how many children are allowed to stay with grandparents and other relatives, but they think they are doing better than the 10 percent shown in the Child Welfare League of America's numbers for 2003.

Documents in such family court cases are sealed, so it can be difficult to tell all sides of a family's story.

But Brenda Tipton of Lexington, who is attempting to adopt her three grandchildren, provided case documents to the Herald-Leader. The documents show that officials are concerned about a DUI charge against Tipton that dates back to the 1990s and about an instance in which her grandchildren weren't in their car seats. They were also concerned because last summer she didn't have the money to pay a gas bill.

The children were initially taken from Tipton's daughter because of drug and other problems. Tipton is getting help from local advocates, but she fears it's too late.

"I had these babies since they were born. Now I get a once-a-month visit because they say I'm too emotional and it upsets the children. The babies are upset because they miss me," Tipton said, "How could they do this to my family?"

Cabinet officials typically do not discuss individual cases. In general, they say they can't ignore criminal charges -- even those that were dismissed.

Hospital visit begins saga
The Verdenburghs' ordeal began in mid-April when Madison's mother, Lisa, 23, found a bump on the baby's head. Lisa, a Bluegrass Community and Technical College student, thought the bump had been sustained when Madison rolled off the couch while being diapered and hit her head on a coffee table.

Madison remained cheerful and alert, according to medical records, and exhibited no unusual symptoms. After a few days, the bump became swollen and bruised, and her family took her to the emergency room.

The injury turned out to be a hairline skull fracture Doctors at the University of Kentucky said there was no evidence that the baby had been abused, and they sent her home with her parents, records show. Hospital records show that Madison had no symptoms that required treatment while she was observed at the hospital.

Still, social workers removed Madison from her parents the night she was discharged from the hospital, and put her in a foster home.

The problem, according to case documents provided by the family: Doctors didn't think the injury was consistent with the baby hitting her head on a coffee table. They thought an object had accidentally fallen on her or that she had been accidentally dropped.

When neither Lisa nor Madison's father, Mitch Scott, 29, could think of another incident in which the girl could have been injured, a family court judge agreed to a state request to remove Madison from the home while the case was investigated.

Crystal Verdenburgh, a system's engineer, and Jim -- who make a combined six-figure income -- quickly asked that Madison be allowed to live with them in their tri-level home in a quiet neighborhood near Harrodsburg Road and Man o' War Boulevard.

But the girl spent almost a month in foster care.

Social workers said the child could not live with her grandparents because of a 1994 charge of driving under the influence against Jim, 49. Around the same time 12 years ago, Crystal filed a charge of terroristic threatening and aggravated assault against him after an argument, but she immediately withdrew the charge.

Crystal said she tried to explain to social workers that after Jim returned home from the Persian Gulf War in the early 1990s, she wanted him to get treatment for battle-related stress. She sought the advice of specialists at a veteran hospital, and they encouraged her to file charges of terroristic threatening or spouse abuse against him, but to withdraw them if he agreed to counseling.

Court records show that's just what she did. After the charges were dismissed, the family had no similar problems.

Officials also cited Jim's two misdemeanor charges of drinking in public, one in 2001, the other in 2003. The latter involved an instance when Jim opened a beer while fishing with his wife on Cave Run Lake in Morehead, case records show.

In order to get his granddaughter out of foster care and into his wife's custody, Jim agreed to a psychological assessment that was conducted May 16.

Records from the assessment showed that he was not abusing alcohol or dependent on alcohol, and that there was no "consistent and current pattern of aggression." Still, in order for Madison to be moved into the Verdenburghs' house, Jim had to leave his wife and well-kept home for 19 days. He said he lived in a motel.

Jim was allowed to see Madison only twice each week for one hour, and Madison's parents were allowed only a few additional hours of visitation.

"We've been married 29 years, so the separation was difficult," Jim said. "We dealt with it, but it was uncalled for. And it turned out it was all for nothing."

'Like they kidnapped her'
Tom Emberton Jr., commissioner of the health and family cabinet's Community Based Services division, said the cabinet could not ignore a skull fracture and a grandfather with charges related to alcohol and domestic violence, even if the charges were dismissed or more than a decade old. He said the eventual decision to return the child was made by the cabinet in collaboration with other court officials.

The situation was wrenching, said Mitch Scott, who is engaged to Lisa Verdenburgh and works with her at a restaurant.

"My daughter is the light of our lives," he said. "We were careful with her, we worried about so many things. It felt like they kidnapped her."

In the first week of June, family court prosecutor Duane Osborne and Lisa Verdenburgh's lawyer met with physicians familiar with the case, including Madison's physician, according to an e-mail the prosecutor wrote to cabinet officials. The family provided a copy of the e-mail to the Herald-Leader.

The e-mail said there was no evidence of abuse or medical neglect and that Madison should be returned to her parents. Jim Verdenburgh returned home. And in the second week of June -- almost two months after her mother discovered the bump on her head -- Madison was allowed to live with her parents.

The Fayette County Attorney's Office, where Osborne works, would not comment on the case, citing confidentiality laws.

The Verdenburgh family credits their attorneys with helping them make their way through the scrutiny until Judge Jo Ann Wise dismissed the charges last week.

Cabinet for Health and Family Services officials say they handled the case appropriately and would not do anything differently.

The family said that Madison's grandparents, not a stranger, should have been the first choice to care for the girl.

And they said they are talking about the case publicly because social workers should be held accountable for their actions.

"I don't want this to happen to anyone else," Jim Verdenburgh said.

Adoption process takes time
Here is the process from the time a child is removed from its biological parents until a finalized adoption.

--An emergency custody order is obtained from the court.

--A conference/family team meeting is held after five days.

--After 72 hours, a temporary removal hearing is held.

--Within several weeks, the circuit or family court holds an adjudication hearing to determine whether allegations of dependency, abuse or neglect are true.

--Family team meetings or periodic reviews are held at three, six, and nine months, and an annual permanency hearing is held every 12 months.

--A regional cabinet attorney holds a pre-permanency meeting to review the prospect of involuntary termination of rights before a permanency hearing or team meeting if the cabinet is considering changing the goal to adoption.

--An involuntary termination of parental rights hearing is held. This is a formal private court trial.

--Either party may appeal to the Court of Appeals within 30 calendar days of the judge's decision.

--Petition for adoption is filed. This may be filed when placement occurs or any time thereafter.
--Adoption judgment.

SOURCE: Cabinet for Health and Family Services


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