Friday, December 22, 2006

Tungate placed on leave for her attempts to intimidate witnesses

Child-welfare inquiry expands
Social worker accused of intimidation, put on leave
Yetter, Deborah. Louisville Courier-Journal, May 13, 2006, pg. A1.

A state social service administrator has been placed on leave over allegations that she tried to intimidate witnesses during an ongoing investigation into whether children were being removed from homes and adopted too quickly.

The action comes as the inspector general for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services says he is broadening an investigation of the Elizabethtown office into other issues and other parts of the state.

"Our investigation has really expanded to look at the entire process once a child is removed from a home, " Inspector General Robert J. Benvenuti III said yesterday.

Benvenuti said his office is expanding the investigation based on information it has developed over the past several months.

On April 24 state officials notified employee Pam Tungate, an assistant director of the eight-county Lincoln Trail district, that she was being placed on a paid, 60-day leave while the cabinet investigates allegations of misconduct. The district includes Hardin, Breckinridge, Grayson, LaRue, Marion, Meade, Nelson and Washington counties.

Tungate could not be reached for comment yesterday.

In January, the cabinet's inspector general's office began investigating allegations by child advocates that workers in the Hardin County district were too hasty to remove children from homes and push them into adoption. One possible reason for this would be to meet more stringent federal guidelines, advocates said. The guidelines reward states that meet adoption deadlines with more federal money.

The advocates also raised concerns that some friends or associates of child welfare workers were getting preferential treatment for adoptions and workers and families who protested decisions about child removal, foster care and adoption were subject to retaliation and intimidation.

The letter to Tungate, obtained by The Courier-Journal through an open records request, said Tungate allegedly "inappropriately tried to influence and intimidate witnesses " during the investigation into "improper placement of children and alteration of official business docum ents. "

"You are cautioned that retaliation is prohibited, " the letter said.

Benvenuti said he couldn't comment on Tungate's situation. But he said investigators would refer any cases of possible criminal violations to local prosecutors.

He said his investigators have not done so so far and he isn't sure how long the investigation will take.

"Beyond Hardin County, we have received complaints from other areas, " Benvenuti said. "Depending on the nature of those, we are investigating. "

Virginia Durrance, 38, of Louisville, a single mother whose two daughters were temporarily removed in 2001 for neglect, welcomed the investigation and said the state needs to look at how it serves families especially poor single mothers.

"I'm a single mom and I'm struggling, " said Durrance, who works in an office and is taking classes to obtain her GED. "It's hard raising a child by yourself. "

Jennifer Jewell, coordinator of a local group called "Women in Transition " with some members who have had children removed said the group is concerned that state workers are too quick to remove children from poor mothers.

She said she and another member met about two hours with Benvenuti this week to express concerns that the poorest clients aren't always treated fairly in the social service system and often wind up accused of neglect because of poverty.

"When a family doesn't have a home, that's poverty not neglect, " she said.

Benvenuti said he met with the women after learning about their organization.

"They brought up a lot of good issues, " he said.

Child advocates said they are pleased the state seems to be following up on concerns they raised in two reports issued in January regarding state social services overall and in particular, services through the Hardin County office.

"They get credit for taking our allegations seriously," said David Richart, who helped write the reports and is director of the National Institute on Children, Youth and Families in Louisville.

Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, which conducted the confidential survey that led to the reports, said he's glad the state is expanding the investigation. Though his group found that the highest number of complaints involved the Lincoln Trail district, it also had similar complaints about removal, adoption and foster care from all over Kentucky, he said.

"Lincoln Trail and Elizabethtown exemplified the problems we saw on a statewide basis, " he said.

What is new
State officials are expanding an investigation into allegations that child welfare officials in the Hardin County region are too quick to remove children from homes and recommend them for adoption instead of trying to help families in crisis.

Robert J. Benvenuti III, inspector general of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, said his office will look at other parts of the child welfare system and other areas of the state.

Anyone with information or specific concerns can call (800) 372-2970.


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