Friday, December 22, 2006

KY Cabinet getting overly ambitious about severing parental rights

State to hold hearings on adoptions
Women rally in Lexington to support biological parents
Honeycutt-Spears, Valarie. Lexington Herald-Leader, June 1, 2006, pg. C1.

Kentucky legislators say they plan to hold hearings into allegations that the state is inappropriately taking children from their biological parents and moving them into adoptive homes.

State Rep. Tom Burch, co-chair of the Interim Health and Welfare Committee, said he and other lawmakers fear that Kentucky's Cabinet for Health and Family Services "is getting overly ambitious about severing parental rights in some cases."

Burch said initial testimony is set to begin at 1 p.m. June 21 in Frankfort.

Among those scheduled to testify is Mary Henderson, who recently regained custody of her four children after Fayette Circuit Judge Tim Philpot denied the Cabinet's request to terminate her parental rights.

The move comes as the state's Office of Inspector General is investigating whether, under federal pressure to increase the number of Kentucky foster children who are adopted, some administrators in the Cabinet are inappropriately recommending to courts that the rights of biological parents be terminated.

One social worker in Hardin County has been placed on paid leave pending investigation of her actions, and Inspector General Robert J. Benvenuti III said other suspensions and criminal prosecutions could result.

Cabinet officials say they requested the inspector general's investigation, although they think the majority of cases are handled appropriately and are within federal guidelines.

"We look forward to working with Chairman Burch and his committee as they review this critical issue," said Tom Emberton Jr., commissioner of the Department for Community Based Services. "The cabinet remains committed to putting the health and welfare of our children and families first."

State Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington, said she asked Burch to address the foster care adoption issue in legislative hearings after meeting Henderson and reading news articles about the issue. "We need to identify the tactics being used by the Cabinet so we can see what the red flags are," said Westrom. "It's unconscionable to me that we are playing games with mothers who have no recourse."

In Lexington yesterday, about 20 people attended a rally in Triangle Park in support of biological parents whose children had been removed by the Cabinet or who were in danger of having their parental rights terminated.

At the rally, sponsored by an advocacy group called Women in Transition, Henderson joined several women who chanted, "Take our poverty, not our children," and carried signs with messages such as "A mother's arms are always open."

Though the crowd was relatively small, Women in Transition executive director Jennifer Jewell said, "This is a big step for Lexington. It's the first event in Lexington that's given a voice to people."

Jewell, whose organization is based in Louisville and has expanded to Lexington, said she had heard from at least 50 Central Kentucky families who think their children were removed without cause in an effort to increase state adoptions.

Jo O'Hara of Lexington joined other biological mothers at the rally because she faces a termination of parental rights hearing next week. O'Hara said that 16 months ago, she asked state social service workers to take custody of her children until she could stabilize medication for a mental health problem. O'Hara contends that state officials have ignored her progress even though she has met their demands. She fears her two sons, already in separate foster homes, will be adopted by strangers.

The issue first emerged publicly in January when the Louisville-based National Institute on Children, Youth and Families Inc. and the Kentucky Youth Advocates released a report titled The Other Kentucky Lottery that raised concerns about "quick trigger" foster care adoptions.

Critics of the state adoption system allege that a federal push to prevent children from languishing in foster care has increasingly led to such adoptions, in which children are separated from their parents too quickly or without evidence to justify the removal.

The number of children moved from state foster care to adoption in Kentucky increased dramatically, resulting in $1 million in bonus money paid to the state in 2004 under a federal program.

Westrom and Burch said yesterday that if testimony shows that the allegations are well-founded, they anticipate that policy and law changes could be made on a state level. The legislators said it's unclear at this point exactly what improvements are needed.

In addition, the lawmakers say the federal laws need to be revisited, especially if the incentive money motivates the state to quickly or carelessly shift children into adoptive homes.

"That's Big Brother at its worst," said Westrom. "We need to be sure that parental rights aren't being trod upon."


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