Friday, December 22, 2006

State social worker tries to alter documents and intimidate witnesses

Adoption probe snags supervisor
Inspector General expands investigation into Family Services
Honeycutt-Spears, Valarie. Lexington Herald-Leader, May 13, 2006, pg. A1.

A state social-work supervisor is under investigation for allegedly trying to alter documents and intimidate witnesses in a state inspector general's investigation into inappropriate state adoptions, terminations of parental rights and foster care.

Pam Tungate, an assistant administrator for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services' Lincoln Trail region based in Elizabethtown, has been placed on "special paid leave" for 60 days while officials investigate, according to a Cabinet order that was effective April 25.

Tungate could not immediately be reached for comment. Cabinet officials emphasized yesterday that no final action had been taken or conclusive findings made.

Meanwhile, Cabinet Inspector General Robert J. Benvenuti III said that he has broadened the scope of his investigation into so-called "quick trigger" adoptions. And he confirmed that he met this week with domestic violence officials who alleged in a Herald-Leader article last month that children are being removed from domestic violence victims who have sought help at shelters.

"We are also meeting with several other groups. It will be lengthy investigation involving many agencies and the courts," Benvenuti said.

Sherry Currens, executive director of the Kentucky Domestic Violence Association in Frankfort, said she met with Benvenuti and Tom Emberton Jr., the commissioner of the Cabinet's Division of Community Based Services.

Currens said both officials gave domestic violence workers "an open door" to cite examples of problems. Currens said she had forwarded five or six complaints to the inspector general's office.

In the Herald-Leader story last month, Currens and other domestic violence victim advocates said that some Cabinet workers were telling women that shelters aren't an appropriate atmosphere for children. Advocates said that could dissuade victims from seeking help.

Benvenuti said he has widened his investigation to review all facets of termination of parental rights, foster care adoptions, and placements of children.

Any evidence of crimes will be turned over to prosecutors, he said.

The inspector general's investigation was requested by the Cabinet for Health and Family Services after a January report from the Louisville-based National Institute on Children, Youth and Families Inc. and the Kentucky Youth Advocates.

The expansion of the investigation and the actions taken so far, said David Richart, executive director of the National Institute on Children, Youth and Families "is a vindication of the January report, which indicated the most unethical and unprofessional behavior that I've seen in 35 years of social work."

"I think it's the tip of the iceberg," said Richart.

Vikki Franklin, a cabinet spokeswoman, said yesterday that cabinet officials are ensuring that appropriate measures are being taken to investigate the allegations.

The advocacy report titled The Other Kentucky Lottery raised concerns about fast-track or "quick trigger" foster care adoptions -- those in which children are separated from their parents too quickly or without evidence to justify the removal.

The January report was based on 225 complaints received on an anonymous hotline established because child-protection workers and others were afraid they would be violating confidentiality laws by making their concerns public.

The report looked at problems resulting from federal laws passed in the late 1990s that forced the state to place children in adoptive homes more quickly.

Social workers and other professionals allege that some administrators in the Cabinet for Health and Family Services are inappropriately recommending to courts that the rights of biological parents be terminated.

Advocates have said that the state has an incentive to push adoptions because it receives federal financial bonuses for moving children from foster care into adoptive homes.

Initially in his investigation, Benvenuti said, he focused on the Lincoln Trail region based in Elizabethtown and specifically the fast-tracking of state adoptions, but he said the review quickly included other complaints about the entire process of removals and terminations.


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