Friday, December 22, 2006

New laws proposed to secure the rights of biological parents in Kentucky

Panel wants Kentucky's adoption laws changed -
Focuses on parents' rights
Honeycutt-Spears, Valarie. Lexington Herald-Leader, Dec. 15, 2006, pg. C1.

FRANKFORT -- A panel studying the way state foster children are adopted will suggest proposed new laws to help secure the rights of biological parents and require training on state adoptions for judges and lawyers, officials said yesterday.

After meeting for several months, the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services blue ribbon panel on adoption decided yesterday on several proposals that Rep. Tom Burch and Rep. Susan Westrom say they will draft into bills for the 2007 Kentucky General Assembly.

Cabinet for Health and Family Services Commissioner Mark D. Birdwhistell said leaders in both the state House and the Senate told him they support making the most needed improvements to the foster care adoption system in 2007.

"Doing nothing is not an option," Birdwhistell said. "We need to strike while the iron is hot."

The panel chaired by Birdwhistell has been reviewing complaints first levied in January by child advocacy groups Kentucky Youth Advocates and the National Institute on Children, Youth and Families. The January 2006 report said some state social workers were alleging that the Cabinet inappropriately removes children from their homes and, encouraged by federal law, expedites state adoptions.

Though statistics don't support widespread evidence of the "quick-trigger adoptions" that many officials and advocates have alleged, Birdwhistell said the state foster care adoption process definitely has "pockets of problems" in parts of the state. The commissioner said new laws should address "fairness and consistency" in the way children are removed from their homes and parental rights are terminated.

The legislative proposals, which Jefferson County Family Court Judge Patricia Walker Fitzgerald drafted for the panel, suggest making sure that when state social workers remove a child from a home the court notifies both sides of the biological family. Extreme efforts would be taken to find biological fathers and other paternal relatives, something that is not done now.

Under the proposed new laws, indigent parents would be appointed an attorney before they appeared at an initial court hearing. Judges would be required to tell biological parents in clear terms that they could lose their children permanently if they did not follow court orders in a timely fashion.

The proposals call for court-appointed attorneys and guardians ad litem to receive more money than the $250 to $500 that they now receive, an initiative unsuccessfully suggested by 10 other statewide panels in the last 30 years. Court appointed attorneys would also have to sign an affidavit showing how much work they are doing for a biological parent.

Currently, family court judges and attorneys are not required to get training specifically about the entire process of removing a child from its biological parents, placing the child in foster care and terminating parental right. Under the proposed legislation, that training would be mandated.

Tom Emberton Jr., Commissioner of the Department for Community Based Services, said the Cabinet will also make improvements that don't have to be approved by the General Assembly.

Efforts will be made to help at-risk families so that fewer children are removed from their homes, state social workers will receive more training, and the Cabinet will expand a Jefferson County-based Parent Advocate program statewide, Emberton said. The program provides mentors for parents involved in the child welfare system.

Westrom, D-Lexington, said that any initiatives not addressed by the 2007 General Assembly could be worked on throughout the year and introduced again in 2008.

"I can't help but think we are just beginning," said Westrom.


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