Friday, December 22, 2006

Untrained judges, lack of support for biological parents and limited visitation time

Adoption task force hears judges -
Recommendations given on proposed laws to improve system in Kentucky
Honeycutt-Spears, Valarie. Lexington Herald-Leader, Sept. 16, 2006, pg. B1.

FRANKFORT -- Jefferson Family Court Judge Patricia Walker FitzGerald said that, although Kentucky's child protection system does many things right, sometimes it seems that a judge can spend a week deciding "who gets the pots and pans in a divorce" and "twenty minutes to decide whether to take your child."

Pike Family Court Judge Larry Thompson told a state task force on adoptions yesterday that he tries to think how he would feel if somebody were taking his child away and that sometimes he rules against the recommendations of state social workers.

Family court judges appeared before the Cabinet for Health and Family Services' Blue Ribbon Panel on Adoption yesterday to give their recommendations on proposed new laws and regulations that could improve the system that leads to adoptions from the foster care system.

The task force, which will send a package of proposals to the 2007 General Assembly, was prompted by complaints earlier this year from Kentucky child advocates about unfair child removals and "quick-trigger adoptions" spurred by federal law and financial incentives.

At the same time that a panel of child-protection professionals is meeting with legislators, the state inspector general's office is also investigating the problems.

Fitzgerald told the task force that, during the first hours after the state removes children, some families come to court hearings without legal representation. At least one loophole in state law allows for less legal representation for families, she said.

The judge said guardians ad litem -- attorneys appointed by the courts to represent the children's interests -- are underpaid. Also, treatment and counseling that was funded five years ago in Kentucky to reunite families isn't available today.

Other problems revealed during yesterday's testimony include:
* Some families trying to regain custody are allowed to see their children only one hour each month.
* There aren't enough programs that assess whether parents can fix their problems and how fast.
* Judges aren't required to take training that focuses on termination of parental rights and the Cabinet's removal of children.

Task force members discussed whether Kentucky might one day have a special team of professionals that would move into a county where the court officials and social service professionals appear to need more training.

Cabinet Secretary Mark D. Birdwhistell, who chairs the task force, said a major statewide assessment should be conducted to make sure Kentucky has the right treatment programs in the right places with trained professionals. He said the task force would look at the state and federal funding cuts that have done away with treatment programs.

Jim Clark of the University of Kentucky School of Social Work told task force members that Kentucky was struggling with the tension between meeting federal time lines designed to increase state adoptions and making sure that parental rights weren't abused. He said there was a tension between the months it takes for a drug-addicted parent to achieve sobriety and the scientifically proven need to find a permanent home for children under the age of three.

To some extent, the problem is unsolvable, Clark said.

But he said that programs like the Cabinet-funded University of Kentucky Comprehensive Assessment and Training Services can help answer the question: "How do we lower the harm?"

Two family court judges testified yesterday that Kentucky's system of checks and balances -- in which the court must approve the Cabinet's decision -- mostly works.

"I don't want to remove (a child) unless I have to," said Thompson, the Pike judge.

Boyle Family Court Judge Bruce Petrie said that a "quick-trigger" state adoption has never been brought to his attention by the citizen boards that review foster care cases.

From her seat in the audience, Brenda Tipton of Lexington yesterday held a hand-lettered sign high above her head for the 21/2-hour meeting. "Please help," said the message that surrounded a photograph of Tipton holding her three grandchildren, "One lying social worker -- my three little grandkids now in foster home."

Tipton says her efforts to regain custody are being ignored by the Cabinet and she is allowed only a one-hour visit each month with her grandchildren as they move toward a state adoption.

Task force member Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington, said many families are frustrated by having only a few hours of visitation each month.

After the Cabinet took the children away from Tipton's daughter because of drug problems, Tipton was given custody for several months. But Cabinet documents show that Tipton lost custody last year because, in part, a state worker was concerned about Tipton's inability to pay a gas bill last summer and thought she didn't put enough distance between her daughter and the children.

Tipton disputes the social worker's account of events. Tipton said her daughter's parental rights have been terminated and she fears a state adoption for the children is imminent.

Though Tipton didn't speak at yesterday's task force meeting, she kept her eyes fixed on panel members and her sign in the air.

As the task force adjourned, Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, pointed out Tipton's display of perseverance and told Cabinet officials to set up a meeting to hear her concerns.

"There are," Burch told the task force, "two sides to every story."

Brenda Tipton, of Lexington, sat through the task force meeting holding up a sign pleading for the return of her three grandchildren.


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