Friday, December 22, 2006

While working with teenage moms, remember not to kidnap their children

Babies went home with the staff
State ordered halt to practice at home for teen mothers
Honeycutt-Spears, Valarie. Lexington Herald-Leader, July 30, 2006, pg. A1.

NICHOLASVILLE -- Teenage girls in foster care who become pregnant are often placed by the state, along with their babies, in a Jessamine County facility called All God's Children.

The faith-based program, located in a historic mansion on U.S. 27, says its mission is to keep teen mothers and their babies together.

But a statement of deficiency filed by state child care regulators earlier this year showed that when teenage moms misbehaved or took approved short trips, staff members often took their babies away and into their own homes.

In one such case, a state social worker approved an All God's Children employee as a foster parent to a teen mother's child, according to a Feb. 16 state investigative report. "Residents voice concerns about staff members trying to adopt their kids," the report quoted a staff member as saying.

Karl Smith, founder and CEO of All God's Children and also the chairman of the Jessamine County School Board, said the home had stopped allowing staff members to take children home.

But he noted that a state social worker granted permission each time a staff member took the residents' children home.

"As part of our licensure, we are subject to surprise inspection by the Inspector General 24 hours per day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. We are and must be an open book," Smith said.

Smith said that now, when mothers and babies need to be separated for longer than overnight, the state places the children in a foster home unrelated to All God's Children.

Smith said All God's Children seeks to keep teen mothers together with their children rather than separate them. The non-profit, overseen by a 14-member board, has the special challenge of properly taking care of troubled teens and their young children, he said.

Records show that Smith asked state investigators how it was possible for the social services arm of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services to grant permission for staff members to take children home and then have another arm of the same cabinet -- the child care regulatory division -- cite him for a violation.

Tom Emberton Jr., Commissioner of the Department for Community Based Services, said the state social worker involved was incorrect in allowing the visits and both she and her supervisors have received additional training.

Cabinet spokesperson Vikki Franklin said officials know of only one incident in which an All God's Children staff member eventually gained custody of a teenage mother's child. Franklin said that because of privacy laws, she could not say whether the staff member had adopted the child.

Smith said that a state social worker determined the child's biological mother was incapable of keeping custody. A staff member had developed a relationship with the toddler, a boy, and the state worker thought it was in the best interests of the child to stay with the All God's Children staff member.

State child protection officials say they are satisfied with the corrective measures Smith has taken and they are continuing to place teen mothers and their infants at All God's Children. Additionally, Smith said he is proud that the facility has been approved by the New York-based Council on Accreditation.

Violations not uncommon
Smith said -- and cabinet officials agreed -- that most residential facilities in the state similar to his are found in violation of regulations at one time or another.

In 2004, the facility was found deficient for confining defiant and disruptive teen mothers to their own rooms for more than one day -- along with their infants -- without keeping them in sight and checking on them every 10 minutes.

Smith said his facility discontinued the practice. Now, time-out is limited to one hour per episode and the teens are checked by staff every five minutes.

The most recent deficiency was noted in January 2006.

"The child caring facility allowed the children of facility residents to go to the private homes of staff members and called it respite care," a report dated Jan. 31, 2006 said. "Children were placed in respite homes without the facility first conducting a safety audit. Once in respite care, the children were cared for and supervised by untrained family members."

The Jan. 31 statement of deficiency showed that in the one case that resulted in a permanent placement, a child under the age of two was in a staff member's home for four months and was allowed to stay there even after his mother left the facility.

In that case, the child was taken because of the mother's behavior, a decision made in cooperation with counselors from another agency and a state social worker, an investigators report said.

Staff members took three children home while their teen mothers were on a five-day camping trip and another staff member took home the child of a teen who went out of state to visit her family for a week, according to the Jan. 31 report.

All God's Children was not licensed to provide respite care, according to a state investigative report, but staff "provided respite care for multiple babies who were the children of the teenage mothers who were residents."

"I've seen temporary respite care turn into long-term placement," one child care worker at the facility told investigators.

In one instance, a person who had a contract to handle the medical issues for teen mothers at All God's Children was allowed to take a baby home "for the purposes of respite," a Feb.16, 2006 report said.

A child care worker at the facility told investigators that she took a child home after his mother "got into a verbal fight with another resident," according to that same report.

The child-care worker stated that residents said they were bothered "because child was taken (and) they seem to think that the child was taken from mother because she was misbehaving," said the report.

An office employee became the child's foster mother after being approved by a state social worker, the report said.

A day-care teacher said that, in all, she had kept four babies of All God's Children residents in her own home.

The day-care teacher told investigators that she had taken classes to be a certified foster parent, but had decided not to go any further with the foster parent process.

In an interview with the Herald-Leader, Smith said his staff is required to contact a state social worker if the teen parent fails to meet the guidelines for caring for the child as set by the social worker.

According to the Feb. 16 report, Karl Smith "said the final judgment on splitting teen mother residents and their babies was up to DCBS workers but was based in part on the facility's recommendations."

In the interview, Smith said it's not uncommon for teen mothers to lose custody of their children while living at All God's Children because of their behavior, but among the teenage mothers and babies he has tracked, at least 75 percent have stayed together. All God's Children opened in April 1999.

A need was identified
In all, there are 16 residents at the home: teen mothers, their infants and pregnant teen moms, Smith said.

The facility dates back to 1986, when Karl Smith's wife, Pam Smith, started volunteering at the AA Pregnancy Help Center in Lexington, administering pregnancy tests and counseling mothers-to-be.

Pam Smith realized that the mothers needed help with life skills. Then, their music minister called, knowing that Pam volunteered at the pregnancy center. The minister and his wife were adopting a child and wanted to know if there was a place the mother could stay until she had the baby.

That birth mother was the first of 25 mothers or babies who would stay with the Smiths in their own home.

Through that process, they saw that the mothers needed ongoing services that could only be provided by opening a facility.

Karl Smith left a successful career in a licensed sports merchandise business and formed a non-profit corporation. The Smiths started holding support-group meetings for teenage mothers.

The corporation bought the house on Danville Road in 1999 and received help from Porter Memorial Baptist Church to furnish the six bedrooms and 4 1/2 bathrooms.

The home now accepts referrals from the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services. Smith said private referrals are less common.

Teens who live at the home go to school, take parenting classes and follow rules in a 20-page handbook that is approved by both the Cabinet and the Council on Accreditation.

Smith is adamant that his program is not being used as a pipeline to increase state adoptions.

In fact, he said his wife Pam recently opposed a Cabinet decision to remove a resident's two children and went to court to support the mother. Though the children were removed anyway, Smith said the effort was an example of the program's dedication to helping birth mothers stay with their children.

"We are judged," he said, "in how successful we are in keeping mom and baby together."

Karl Smith, executive director of All God's Children, in one of the facility's six bedrooms. He said the non-profit's goal is to keep teen mothers together with their children rather than separate them.


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