Friday, December 22, 2006

Retaliation by the Cabinet is exposed

Kentucky's child-welfare setup flawed, mother says
Worker abuses alleged during legislative hearing
Yetterm Deborah. Louisville Courier-Journal, June 22, 2006, pg. A1.

FRANKFORT, Ky. Mary Henderson doesn't fault the state for removing her four children in 2003.

Henderson, 41, a single mother from Lexington, said she was drinking too much and misusing prescription drugs.

But what followed, Henderson told lawmakers yesterday, is a story of abuses in a system that's supposed to help families and children.

In testimony about a system generally veiled in confidentiality, Henderson alleged mistreatment of her children and herself by social workers who she says pushed adoption and retaliated against anyone who objected.

"There's a fatal flaw in this system," Henderson, who has regained custody of her children, told the House-Senate Health and Welfare Committee meeting. "To me, just some of these things ought not to be."

Henderson's testimony was part of an update lawmakers sought on the child- welfare system.

It came amid an ongoing investigation into whether the Cabinet for Health and Family Services removes children too quickly from homes for alleged abuse and neglect, and presses too hard to get children adopted rather than returned to families.

Statewide investigation
The cabinet's inspector general, Robert J. Benvenuti III, is looking into allegations that advocates raised this year about the Hardin County child- welfare office. He said last month that he has broadened the investigation statewide.

Eugene Foster, the cabinet undersecretary who oversees social services, and social services Commissioner Tom Emberton Jr. said yesterday that officials will work with lawmakers in reviewing Henderson's case and correct any problems they identify.

Foster and Emberton denied any retaliation by cabinet officials.

Foster sought to assure the committee that the state's main goal is to protect children and, when possible, reunite them with their families.

He told them that he has no information about findings in Benvenuti's investigation.

The comments of Henderson and her lawyer, Robin Cornette, clearly disturbed some lawmakers, who praised her for speaking publicly with the permission of her family court judge.

Committee co-chairman Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, said that he has looked into the case and that "there were some problems."

Rep. Darryl Owens, D-Louisville, said he hopes Henderson's testimony inspires others to report problems. "I'm hoping other people might feel just as comfortable in coming before the committee," he said.

Foster said afterward that he believes Henderson's case had a good outcome because she underwent treatment, met the cabinet's requirements and regained custody of her children.

"It's the system working as it should," he said.

Henderson and Cornette said it was only through good fortune and perseverance that they prevented the cabinet from letting a foster family they had complained about adopt the children.

"The system worked here because my client was lucky," Cornette said.

It was fraught with problems during the 18 months her children were in foster care, Henderson said.

During the dispute, the state allowed the foster family to move with the children to Peoria, Ill., making it difficult for them to visit their mother.

Foster said that allowing foster parents to move out of state with children is unusual. "I'm sure there were reasons for it," he said.

A case of retaliation?
Henderson said her most serious problems arose after she began to complain about her children's first foster family, which she felt was treating them poorly.

Social workers investigated and transferred the children to a second foster home, but allowed regular visits by the first foster parents.

The second foster mother, Anita Gibson, testified yesterday that she thought the visits were unusual and harmful to the children. Gibson said the children told her that the other family offered enticements, such as gifts and privileges, if they would return.

Henderson went to court to stop the visits, and the judge, who can recommend but not order cabinet placements, agreed.

The cabinet responded by returning the children to the first foster family a move Henderson alleged to be retaliatory.

Gibson who with her husband, David Gibson, lost foster- care certification over the case said she believes they were punished for objecting.

Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington, said she has reviewed the case and thinks the cabinet retaliated. "I think Mary has some very good documentation that would paint that picture," she said.

Henderson and her children are now living with the Gibsons while she works on a degree in public administration at Kentucky State University.

She said she appeared yesterday to try to help others still struggling with the cabinet. "Too many families depend on them," she said.


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