Friday, December 22, 2006

Secrecy and lack of accountability at the root of KY's problems with foster care

EDITORIAL: Child welfare needs creative effort, light
Louisville Courier-Journal, Dec. 18, 2006, pg. A8.

One size does not fit all when it comes to protecting at-risk kids. It's complicated trying to come up just solutions for the situations that have landed about 7,400 children in the state's custody. Protecting children necessitates honesty as well as a never-ending search for more effective ways to serve the best interests of children and their families.

Reuniting families is, of course, the ideal, and Courier-Journal staff writer Deborah Yetter gave several examples in a story last week about a very promising pilot program here in Jefferson County. It uses part-time volunteers to help parents get their lives together, navigate the child-welfare system and retain their children.

Almost a year old, the pilot program was launched with a $50,00 grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Now, it's getting rave reviews from participants and Tom Emberton, Kentucky's commissioner of social services, who plans to take the program statewide.The apparent key to the program's success is that its volunteer advocates all have walked a mile in the shoes of the people they're trying to help. They, too, lost custody but won it back.

That example, said a participant who got sober and eventually won his children back, is what really inspired him.

But not everybody or everything is functioning as well.

A report by Kentucky State Auditor Crit Luallen last week to the Blue Ribbon Panel on Adoption illuminated many remaining challenges.

She found, for example, that the average wait for adoptions in Kentucky exceeds the federal guidelines. In fact, there's so much inconsistency county-to-county that as many as six years may lapse between the time a child comes into system and is permanently placed.

State child-welfare officials insist they're aware of the problem and already are working on those issues. Ms. Luallen not only recommended speedier adoptions for the approximately 2,000 eligible children, but urged Kentucky to join 23 other states that have established "birth" father registries.

Jefferson County Family Court judges Patricia Walker FitzGerald and Stephen George addressed the same Blue Ribbon panel. She said, for example, that lawyers who represent poor parents in child custody cases are poorly paid and that family law classes should be mandated for judges assigned handle abuse and neglect cases.

Judge George made a point that this newspaper has previously endorsed, namely, that one of the biggest problems of Kentucky's child-welfare system is that family court proceedings are shrouded in secrecy and, thus, lack accountability.

If those proceedings were more transparent, it would be a different ballgame, Judge George said. Of course, it would.

System failures would show up more quickly, patterns would be recognized and those responsible would be both compelled and able to make changes faster than they tend to do now.


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