Friday, December 22, 2006

Quick trigger adoptions in pursuit of federal funds - regardless of criminal records of adoptive families

Foster child adoption push investigated
Report: State unjustly terminates parental rights for federal money
Honeycutt-Spears, Valarie. Lexington Herald-Leader, April 16, 2006, pg. A1.

Kentucky's inspector general is investigating complaints that some state child protection officials are using foster children as "bartering items" in an adoption push that a recent report equated to the "black-market selling of children."

Veteran state social workers and other professionals who work with vulnerable families allege that, under federal pressure to increase the number of Kentucky foster children who are adopted, some administrators in the Cabinet for Health and Family Services are inappropriately recommending to courts that the rights of biological parents be terminated.

In January, 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 expedited or "quick trigger" foster care adoptions.

Cabinet Inspector General Robert J. Benvenuti III says an intensive investigation into the allegations has been under way since January and could result in both administrative actions and criminal prosecutions.

At the same time, judges, social workers, biological parents and advocates -- typically intimidated by confidentiality laws -- are speaking out about how a well-conceived federal idea to prevent children from languishing in foster care has increasingly led to "quick trigger" adoptions, in which children are separated from their parents too quickly or without evidence to justify the removal.

"There are complaints that some supervisors and workers are unwilling to listen, complaints about the arrogance of power," said David Richart, executive director of the National Institute on Children, Youth and Families. "I suspect this is happening in other states. We appear to be one of the first groups to identify this as a problem."

The number of children moved from state foster care to adoption in Kentucky increased from 384 in 1999 to 902 in 2005. That resulted in $1 million in bonus money paid to the state in 2004 under a federal program designed to encourage states to move more children into adoptive families. The state gets paid a bonus of $4,000 for each child that is adopted out, more if it's a special needs child.

Critics of the adoption system say the incentive money motivates the state to quickly -- sometimes carelessly -- shift children into adoptive homes. A whistleblower lawsuit filed last fall by a fired state social worker alleges that the Cabinet stands to lose millions if it fails to meet time frames set by the federal government.

Federal and Cabinet officials, such as adoption services branch manager Mike Grimes, defend the movement to find children permanent homes more quickly and say that a judge must approve any Cabinet recommendation.

Grimes denied that incentive money is motivating premature terminations of parental rights. He said the state pays out more in subsidies to adoptive parents of special needs children than it receives in federal bonuses.

Tom Emberton Jr., commissioner of the Department for Community Based Services, which oversees foster care adoptions, said he requested the Inspector General investigation of the allegations. So far, Emberton said, he has seen no evidence of quick-triggering adoptions.

He also said the investigation isn't over: "I don't want to paint a picture that we aren't concerned."

In the past, Grimes said, as long as children were safe and policies followed, there was no rush to remove them from foster care. Federal laws passed in the late 1990s, however, forced the state to place children in adoptive homes more quickly.

"It was a huge shift in thinking and practice," he said.

Parental rights debate
The struggle has roots in a debate between people who fiercely believe in parental rights and those who think children are better served by a permanent adoptive family if biological parents can't quickly solve their problems.

The controversy has put those who administer the system at odds. Some in the Family Court system complain that, in some cases, the Cabinet sets unrealistic expectations for biological families so they will fail and their children end up in a state-arranged adoption.

In some cases, judges have stepped in to keep adoptions from happening.

Fayette Family Judge Tim Philpot said the push for foster care adoptions is so new that problems are just beginning to come to light. He recently stopped an attempt by the Cabinet to terminate a mother's parental rights because advocates were concerned the mother hadn't been given a "fair shot" to get her kids back.

"The key to all of these cases is whether you have a judge paying attention," Philpot said. "The foster care review boards and the (court appointed attorneys) are also the eyes and ears of the court."

The January report was based on 225 complaints received on an anonymous hotline. The hotline was set up because many in the child-protection system were afraid they would be violating confidentiality laws by making their concerns public.

Social workers in Hardin County, for example, reported that supervisors picked adoptive families based on how those families could benefit the Cabinet or because supervisors thought the families were owed a favor, according to the report. Emberton said the allegations are under investigation.

Social workers from other parts of the state said supervisors forced them to tear families apart just to raise the number of adoptions of foster children.

"Management staff use children and especially infants as bartering items," one social worker says in the report. "There is not a lot of difference in the system than the black-market selling of children."

Richart said he is working with the complainants involved in 22 cases now under review by the state Inspector General's office, and that there are dozens of other questionable cases that he expects will be scrutinized.

The crux of the debate is the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act, which was passed in 1997. The law allows courts to terminate custodial rights if a parent fails to improve his or her situation, but it also encourages courts to take into account a parent's efforts to reform.

The law was intended to move children into more stable adoptive homes, rather than moving them from home to home in foster care.

Federal authorities started cracking down on Kentucky in 1999 for allowing children to languish in foster care and found the Cabinet out of compliance again in 2003 for not correcting the problem quickly enough. The state faced $1.7 million in fines if the situation didn't improve.

Since the law was passed, child welfare professionals have expressed concerns that it gets more children into adoptive homes at the expense of parents who are in the greatest need of help.

The goal of the law should be to get children out of foster care, said Richard P. Barth, a child welfare researcher and professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, "not to keep kids from going home to their parents."

But many advocates in Kentucky fear that's exactly what's happening. They say the threshold for terminating parental rights has been lowered.

"Ten years ago, we mostly saw burns, physical and sexual abuse" as reasons for removing children from their parents, Lexington attorney T. Robin Cornette said. "Now, sometimes we are in court not because parents don't love, feed, house or get their children to school, but because of substance abuse. It can be marijuana to much more serious addiction issues. And you don't have as much time to improve as you used to. It's the family law equivalent of the death penalty."

Low-income families are especially vulnerable because they don't have money to pay for legal representation or expert court testimony, Cornette said.

In February, the Kentucky Court of Appeals issued a ruling that could help impoverished parents whose children have been removed. The court ruled that the Cabinet had to pay for substance abuse treatment and a mental health assessment for a Fayette County woman in an effort to reunite her with her 14-year-old daughter.

From bad to worse
Not all cases of alleged "quick trigger" adoptions involve biological families.

The attorney for former state social worker Pat Moore says Moore was fired because she criticized her supervisors for insisting that two foster children be placed with an adoptive family in Verona in Boone County even thought the family, among other problems, allowed a man described in court documents as a pedophile convicted of sex crimes to be around the children.

In her whistleblower suit, Moore said the Cabinet was forcing the adoption to keep its numbers high.

Court records show that Cabinet supervisors pushed for the adoption even though those same supervisors acknowledged that the prospective adoptive home should not have been approved and a private foster care agency deemed the home unfit.

According to a memo from Cabinet officials that is included in the lawsuit file, there had been a half-dozen complaints about the prospective adoptive parents, which the Cabinet never substantiated.

In a September 2004 court petition to remove the children from the home, Thomas W. Beiting, a court-appointed guardian, told a judge that both parents had criminal records. Beiting also noted that a son living in the home had been convicted of multiple felonies, including drug convictions, and that the foster mother's brother, a convicted child abuser, had been in the home around the foster children.

"It is obvious that this home probably should have never been approved," said a July 2004 report that summarized a meeting between three regional supervisors and was included in the court file. But the supervisors went on to push for the adoption.

"It is our recommendation that we proceed quickly with the adoption, while building in the greatest safety net as possible," the report said. = BULLSHIT

In 2004, according to court records, Campbell County Judge Michael Foellger went against the Cabinet recommendation and ruled that the Verona family should not be allowed to adopt the children. The Cabinet declined to comment on the case, citing confidentiality laws.

Moore's attorney says the case illustrates how the state is rushing to get kids out of foster care and into adoptive homes. The Cabinet was especially eager to place these children because they were classified as having special needs, attorney Shane Sidebottom said.

He said Moore was fired for going against regional management's judgment:
"The state found foster parents willing to adopt, and even though the state knew the family had major problems, the state needed to get the kids out of the 'system,' regardless of how unfit the foster parents were."


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