Tuesday, January 30, 2007

King defends his actions

Readers' forum: King cites Brooklawn mistakes, questions plan...
Louisville Courier-Journal, Jan. 23, 2007, pg. A6.

Your editorial ("Jim King's venom" Jan. 16) portrayed me as indifferent to the plight of the patients placed with Brooklawn by the state. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Brooklawn is a great institution, and its clients deserve the best mental health care available. I believe its management and board are well-intentioned, and I sincerely regret any appearance to the contrary.

While acknowledging my rhetoric quoted in the paper was strong, I do want the public to know it was contained in two e-mails written almost two months ago — the first to a group house proponent who tried to compare Brooklawn clients to Day Spring clients (no comparison) and the second to Brooklawn's lawyer after my attempt to arrange mediation was rebuffed.

The public release of that rhetoric was Brooklawn's choice, not mine. I've spoken at two meetings on this subject, and I made no statements that were inflammatory at either.

Further, I did not know the protest to be held was originally planned for the Brooklawn campus or I would have objected to that.

While I've made my share of mistakes, so has Brooklawn's management.

They did not announce their plans for a group house in District 10 until they already had a contract to purchase the house, and they only held a neighborhood meeting at my request.

They failed to communicate with the neighbors openly and honestly, thus creating an environment of fear.

Like it or not, we humans are entitled to our fears, rational or not.

Experts I've consulted question the wisdom of Brooklawn's plans. Any group house should have access to public amenities, but this house is not on a bus line and has no sidewalks, and there are no shopping or employment opportunities nearby.

These same experts also say that Brooklawn's plan only perpetuates the institutional approach to treatment, and the $300,000 of taxpayer money spent for this house would be better spent recruiting and training more foster parents so 100 young men could live in real homes instead of only eight in a group house.

Brooklawn also seeks to use a state law providing exemptions from local zoning laws for disabled individuals, but they state in your article that the house's residents have "graduated" from their programs. Even your editorial says the "boys, ages 16 to 19, (adults and juveniles) will have completed treatment."

I respectfully request that Brooklawn explain this inconsistency. That will go a long way toward reducing fear.

Your story attempted to link my home by proximity to the proposed group house on Schuff Lane and thus paint this as a personal matter to me.

The truth is that it is a quarter mile from my home, and there are no sidewalks that connect the two areas; however, there are dozens of other people directly affected by the group house, and I do have to admit some parochialism when it comes to protecting my constituents.

For the record, I have not attacked children, as has been alleged. That is a red herring I hate to dignify with a response. Suffice it to say I have a 35-year history of service to organizations that serve kids of all ages and socioeconomic status.

Although my efforts to arrange a mediation using Just Solutions, a highly regarded local mediation service, were rebuffed earlier by Brooklawn, I am willing to renew my offer to provide an independent mediator to bring the neighbors and Brooklawn together.

If Brooklawn will meet with the neighbors, I'll commit to work with them to begin the healing process. I challenge Brooklawn management to open their hearts and minds and take me up on this offer.

Metro Councilman, District 10
Louisville 40205

Employee should be held accountable for sex with foster youth

Young adult 'independent living' program defended
No criminal charges for employee's sexual liason
Kocher, Greg. Lexington Herald-Leader, Jan. 27, 2007, pg. A1.

State officials and the president of the Kentucky United Methodist Homes for Children and Youth yesterday defended an "independent living" program that was misused by a male employee of the foster home and a teenage girl for a sexual liaison. But officials acknowledged that such programs can be difficult to supervise.

"It is a difficult program to run," said Kathy Adams, assistant director of the state Division of Protection and Permanency. "Teenagers, by their very nature, are at a stage in their lives where they are making decisions, and sometimes they're not always good decisions." - WHAT ABOUT THE STAFF MEMBER?

Also yesterday, officials said they have been told that no criminal charges will be filed as a result of the incident that happened about a month ago at a Lexington apartment rented for the independent-living program.

The aim of such programs is to help youths between the ages of 17 and 21 in foster care learn skills such as budgeting and cooking so they can make the transition to adulthood, said Adams. The program is needed if foster children are to be successful living on their own, she said.

"As with any human-services field, you're going to have a few failures, and we never want the few failures to blemish a program that benefits so many children," Adams said.

About 140 youths are currently in independent living arrangements through 13 private institutions in Kentucky like the Methodist Home in Versailles. The home is a residential treatment center for youths who have been abused, neglected or abandoned.

Children typically leave foster care at 18, when they are considered adult, but they can extend their commitment up to age 21 for education purposes or to learn independent living skills.

Methodist Home President Alex Carmichel said the institution has five apartments for youths in Lexington. Three are occupied, and two will have occupants in the next couple of weeks. A Methodist Home employee checks on apartment residents several times a day. Each youth receives help with rent, clothing, furniture and food.

Participants in these programs typically have a job or are going to school, said Fawn Conley, state coordinator for independent living.

"They're usually selected for maturity, and for academic achievement and community service, and those kinds of things," Conley said.

In addition, participants voluntarily commit to rules and standards that they're going to live by, Carmichel said.

"We tell them they're not allowed to smoke in the apartments," he said. "There's no alcohol. There are no overnight guests. If they do have a guest, there's a curfew time that the guest must leave by. And if they do have a guest, we want to know who the guest is."

In the case that prompted an investigation, one 17-year-old girl in the home's care apparently visited an Appian Way apartment for a weekend, and a male employee of the home was found in the apartment. But officials said they understand there will be no charges.

"The last we were told is that law enforcement would not be pursuing charges," Adams said.

That's because the sex was apparently consensual and, under state law, 16 is the age at which a teen can legally engage in consensual sex, Carmichel said.

"What they're telling me now is that there is no law broken," Carmichel said after discussing the matter with police.

Because of a string of recent firings and a staff restructuring, the home closed three girls' cottages on the Versailles campus. More than 30 teens that were living at the home have been relocated to other facilities in Kentucky. The home is in the process of hiring and training staff so it can reopen the girls' cottages. Fourteen boys remain at the site.

Carmichel said Thursday that he thought Lexington police were investigating the incident because it allegedly happened at the independent living apartment in Lexington. But Lexington Police Sgt. Jesse Harris, supervisor of the Crimes Against Children Unit, said that department has no investigation related to the Methodist Home or its residents.

"There's been no report made to us, and there's no investigation that we're doing," Harris said.

Versailles police had looked into the allegation about a month ago, but filed no charges, said Detective Matt Mitchell.

"There was no criminal activity that we discovered," Mitchell said. "We didn't bring any charges at that time."

Mitchell wouldn't go into specifics, but said, "there are a lot of variables that play into why we didn't bring any charges."

"They (the Methodist Home) may have some more administrative procedures violated than we had criminal violations," Mitchell said. - THE GUY BETTER BE FIRED

The Office of the Inspector General of the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services has conducted an investigation of the home, and is expected to issue a report in a week to 10 days.

Linda Heitzman is a wonderful ally for foster youth

Readers' forum: Neighbor, mother and Brooklawn trustee:
'Let's be the blessing'
Louisville Courier-Journal, Jan. 25, 2007, pg. A6.

I am perhaps the first letter writer on the Brooklawn group home who can honestly say that I have a personal stake on both sides:I am a member of Brooklawn's board of trustees, and I live on the street that runs behind Brooklawn's group home.

.. My family has a long association with Brooklawn, and I have been a frequent visitor to the campus all my life.

Since I volunteer to transport Brooklawn residents to appointments, I have the advantage of knowing many of the boys.

Traveling in my personal car with one or two boys at a time, we have been to the dentist, physical therapy, gone for immunizations and have picked out eyeglasses, all without incident.

As a board member for the past five years, I know and respect Brooklawn's staff. They are interested in setting up the boys for success and safety, and I trust their judgment.

The decision by the dedicated body of community leaders who make up our board to open a group home was unanimous and has been part of Brooklawn's long-term planning for some time.

Eventually, these boys will become independent adults, and, in turn, will all become someone's neighbor. By having them together in a supervised home operated by Brooklawn, we will teach them how to become good citizens and contributing members of our community.

Brooklawn's record of success and reputation as a provider of choice for the population we serve are second to none.

As Christ-followers, my family takes seriously His teaching to care for the "least of these." Brooklawn is part of my family history, my faith history and my philanthropic history. It is now poised to become a part of my neighborhood history.

While I can appreciate that my existing neighbors may have fears of the unknown, we all assume risk each time a property changes hands.

No one conducted a referendum as to whether I could buy my home.

If we are honest, we'd admit that inside each home there exists the memory of a shameful secret, a broken heart or a dreadful mistake. The best of people are people, at best.

Some detractors of the group home contend that foster or adoptive homes would be a much better alternative.

I and the folks at Brooklawn wholeheartedly agree, and we have joined forces with Maryhurst to expand their foster care program to serve Brooklawn's children.

Unfortunately, there is a severe shortage of foster homes in Kentucky willing to accept teenagers.

The group home is but one of several initiatives Brooklawn is undertaking to create alternative, community-based homes for these children.

I realize I have a 45-year head start on most with regard to my confidence in this project, but it is my fervent hope that human kindness and goodwill can bridge this gap.

Surely, by residing around the corner, I can enhance Brooklawn's accountability to the neighborhood.

As a homemaker and the mother of a 17-year-old daughter, I feel grateful to live among neighbors about whom I care and in the house of my dreams — not so much "wealthy" as blessed.

For those who feel likewise, let's be the blessing to our Brooklawn neighbors.

Louisville 40205

Monday, January 29, 2007

7,000 Kentucky children in foster care

Foster care providers getting squeezed
Robinson, Bill. Richmond Register, Jan. 27, 2007.

Some 7,000 Kentucky children live in “out-of-home settings,” according to statistics from Buckhorn Children and Family Services.

“Unfortunately, the number of children removed from homes where they have been neglected or abused continues to rise,” said Robin Gabbard, spokesperson for Buckhorn Services, a mission of the Presbyterian Church USA.

Buckhorn, which serves special needs children in the eastern half of the state, provides “treatment foster care” in four Central Kentucky counties from a “community-based services office” that it has maintained in Richmond for 10 years.

As the cost of caring for the growing number of children removed from unsafe homes has increased, state payments to non-profit organizations that sponsor “treatment foster homes” has not increased in six years, Gabbard said.

In addition to growing expenses such as fuel costs, the cost of meeting ever-more stringent state standards continues to rise, she said.

Two employees of Buckhorn, which has a training center and 10 affiliated foster homes in Madison County, spoke up at a “town hall” meeting that Gov. Ernie Fletcher had in Richmond on Jan. 16.

The governor is conducting a series public meetings across the state to get citizen input on what should be done with the $279 million budget surplus the state expects this year.

In recent months, Buckhorn and similar organizations of the Kentucky Children’s Alliance have had to close facilities because of funding problems, Regina Warren, Buckhorn’s chief operating officer told the governor.

Just $15 million, or 5 percent of the surplus, could keep independent care providers from cutting back on their services, Warren said.

Buckhorn is sending representatives to all of the governor’s town hall meetings to get its message out, Gabbard said.

“We’re also asking our supporters to contact the governor’s office as well as their state legislators with their concerns,” she said.

Comments may be sent to the governor via the
Web site: http://governor.ky.gov/your_money/

Current state funding provides Buckhorn $187 per day for children in its residential programs, Gabbard said. “Our cost is $279 per day, a $92 difference.” Buckhorn must raise funds from private donors to bridge the funding gap or cut back on services, she said.

Parents in Buckhorn’s program “accept children who could not be helped by others,” Gabbard said. The problems of children in what the state calls “Foster Care Plus” homes often can be traced to the environments from which they have been removed, she said.

“We’re seeing more and more children with substance abuse issues,” Gabbard said. “Often they have followed a parent or parents in to drug abuse,” she said. Many of the children in Buckhorn homes have been physically or sexually abused. Other have medical or developmental problems.

Parents in Buckhorn’s foster care program are thoroughly screened and trained, said Randy Murrell, recruitment and certification specialist in Buckhorn’s Richmond office.

“We offer training in crisis management, first aid, CPR and to deal with the specialized needs that foster children may have,” Murrell said.

State Rep. Harry Moberly, D-Richmond chairman of the House of Representative’s Appropriations and Revenue Committee, said that per diem funding for “regular foster care” homes will increase “significantly” July 1 when the state’s fiscal year begins. “I am very interested in our foster care programs,” Moberly said. The governor had not included increased foster care funding in his budget proposal last year, he said.

“We won’t be able to accomplish it” in the short legislative session that begins in February, but the legislature “will examine the additional needs of Foster Care Plus providers such as Buckhorn in the next budget,” Moberly said.

“Buckhorn’s programs provide treatment in addition to regular foster care,” he said. “The legislature will likely require these agencies to show that their treatment programs are achieving results.”

Monday, January 22, 2007

Whining, sadistic cop makes more excuses

Police: Ex-con raped child
Long, Paul A. Kentucky Post, Jan. 19, 2007, pg. A1.

In 1993, then 20-year-old Franklin Castator admitted to "bum bashing" -- helping to beat a homeless man to death -- and tearfully talked about his shame in what he said was a drunken fit of rage.

This week, Castator, now 36, was indicted for raping a young Ludlow girl, and tearfully told a detective he "must have been hammered" during the act, according to a police report. A Kenton County grand jury indicted the Covington man on one count of rape, a crime which, because of the girl's young age, carries a potential penalty of life in prison. He will be arraigned Monday before Kenton Circuit Judge Greg Bartlett. Until then, he is being held in the Kenton County Jail on $100,000 cash bond.

The girl, the daughter of a woman Castator was dating, was 6 when the abuse started, she told police, and it continued for three years. She finally told a family member in October, leading to the police investigation and Castator's arrest.

Castator "cried throughout the interview" with Ludlow Detective John Dorman, according to Dorman's affidavit filed in court records. Castator didn't deny the girl's story and told Dorman he needed help.

"You may as well go ahead and arrest me, if they are doing a test on her, because it's all going to come out in the end, anyway," Dorman quoted Castator as saying.

The girl told police and social workers that Castator molested her -- his acts included rape, sodomy and fondling, she said -- regularly in her home. She said Castator forced sex on her whenever she wanted to go out and play with her friends or asked for money.

"The victim stated that the defendant told her not to tell anyone about the sexual abuse because no one would believe her, and if her mom found out, she would break up with him and -- her mom (would be alone again)," Dorman wrote in his affidavit.

Castator served 10 years in prison after pleading guilty in 1993 to first-degree manslaughter.

He admitted that he kicked, punched and beat Leon Greene, a 58-year-old homeless man and alcoholic, because he was sleeping in a car behind the alley where Castator then lived in Covington. Castator and two others urinated on Greene and left his body in a pile of trash on Aug. 9, 1992.

An autopsy, which determined that Greene had lung disease and died because broken ribs made it difficult for him to breathe, detailed the horrific damage his attackers inflicted. His right ear was nearly ripped off, and he had 13 broken ribs, a ruptured spleen and several cuts and bruises.

Police said a witness told them the men bragged about "bum bashing" and how they had urinated on Greene.

"I wish it didn't happen," Castator said in a jailhouse interview at the time. "You feel ashamed 'cause what you did ended up in death."

Kentucky's Other Lottery has been exposed

Editorial: Repulsive mess -
Social-services scandal needs strong cleaner.
Lexington Herald-Leader, Jan. 19, 2007, pg. A12.

Sadistic and criminal aren't words usually associated with social workers. But they come to mind while reading the results of a yearlong investigation into a Kentucky child-protection bureaucracy that was allowed to go rogue.

Social workers gave each other nicknames like "The Queen of Removal" and "Terminator" and laughed as they stripped children from their parents.

Workers and supervisors lied and falsified documents to cover up their misconduct and misled an accrediting agency. Those who protested or tried to report the abuses were targeted for retaliation, while some of those responsible were rewarded.

Not all, or even most, of the social workers in the eight-county Lincoln Trail area, based in Elizabethtown, are guilty of the abuses of government power detailed by Inspector General Robert J. Benvenuti III.

And such abuses are not confined to Lincoln Trail.

But that's not much consolation.

It underlines the "luck of the draw" quality of life-changing decisions being made about children and their families. "Kentucky's Other Lottery" is the apt title of the report by child advocates that launched the Inspector General's investigation.

The good news is that the scathing review was commissioned by the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services, which administers Lincoln Trail and the rest of Kentucky's community-based services offices.

If the cabinet is willing to air its nasty linen, maybe it will also deal aggressively with the problems the report revealed. A lot of people are watching to see how the cabinet responds.

Kentucky's social workers expose themselves daily to great danger for little pay while making difficult judgment calls on which the safety and well-being of children hinge.

Social worker Boni Frederick was killed last year while supervising an in-home visit between a foster child and his biological mother.

No one is criticizing the judgment calls required in the course of a day's work. But what developed within Lincoln Trail was pernicious and rotten -- an "attitude of supremacy" toward clients and the public, according to the IG's report.

The report identified 13 possible criminal violations that were turned over to a local prosecutor, along with various violations of cabinet policy.

The inspector general also issued a list of recommendations, some of which would require legislation and some of which the cabinet could accomplish by itself.

A blue-ribbon task force was already at work on reforms aimed at correcting abuses in the processes for terminating parental rights and adoption.

But no amount of legislation or reorganization can clean out all the rottenness that this investigation exposed.

The responsible parties should be held accountable.

Social worker speaks out in favor of investigation

Readers' Forum: Poverty's role in neglect
Louisville Courier-Journal, Jan. 19, 2007, pg. A8.

Kudos to the thorough investigation of Kentucky's child welfare system, particularly of Child Protective Services.

Unfortunately, the issues uncovered are not isolated to Hardin County. As a social worker who organizes parents who have gotten a rotten deal in the child welfare system, I am sickened by the stories I hear and have documented of families are torn apart.

Neglect makes up over half of all cases of child maltreatment, more than physical abuse and sexual abuse combined. Poverty plays a big part in many cases of neglect because families lack housing, good-paying jobs and other basic human rights to care for their children.

Changes have to be made across the board, as indicated by the inspector general, and at the same time we need to address poverty.

Until we start addressing poverty and guaranteeing everyone's economic human rights (housing, living-wage jobs, health care) as outlined by the United Nations, we will continue to see a child welfare system overflowing with poor families who lack these basic human rights.

-Jennifer R. Jewell, Louisville 40203

Stigma of foster care and group home residency

Readers' Forum: Brooklawn's propose group home
Louisville Courier-Journal, Jan. 18, 2007, pg. A6.

"Proven success'
As a longtime supporter of Brooklawn's excellent programs and former chairman of the board of directors there, I was appalled at the venom directed by Jim King and others toward the young men in Brooklawn's care.

I challenge them to state the factual basis for their comments about psychotic children and the potential for sex crimes.

Have they ever been to Brooklawn, met any of the children there and heard the sad stories of their terrible lives before Brooklawn, learned of Brooklawn's structured programs and proven success, talked with any of the highly trained professional staff?

The residents at Brooklawn are not monsters bent on disrupting a nice neighborhood or attacking your wives and children.

They are children with treatable emotional conditions arising, in many cases, from neglect or abuse from those who are supposed to nurture and support them.

With their comments and actions, the critics of this transitional living unit once again victimize these children by telling them they are not worthy to live in their community. That an elected official, entrusted to see to the good of the whole community, is involved is especially reprehensible.

The staff at Brooklawn ... will be strenuously screening those boys who have completed treatment for the appropriateness of this setting. Then, they will be providing supervision for the boys from trained professionals.

There are so many more safeguards here than when your neighbor puts a house up for sale, and it goes to the highest bidder.

The residents at Brooklawn, each one a child of God, need and deserve our interest, support and love.

I encourage you to reject the ignorant comments of those bent on fear-mongering, go to Brooklawn or another of several excellent treatment and child-caring facilities in our area, learn the facts, and reach out and become involved in helping those children in our community who so need our care and concern.

-Susan Turner, Louisville 40223

'Programmed for failure'
Among Kentucky's most vulnerable are Brooklawn's teens, who deserve better than to be dropped off at a group house with only shift workers to care for them.

In his autobiographical book, A Life Without Consequences (2001), Stephen Elliot writes that group homes exist below foster homes on the lowest rung of the child welfare ladder.

The kids in group homes could not be adopted because they have too long a record, they have some huge behavioral disorder, or they were already in foster homes and the foster care parents realized that they had made a mistake.

Elliot writes that group homes are programmed for failure: You have a house full of kids and you have rotating, often minimum-wage staff. There are no binding relationships with adults. Then the kids turn 18 and are out on the street where the odds are against them.

So-called "transitional living" is not the answer for these special teenagers. Common sense dictates that they need dedicated, loving adults to provide them with basic support — shopping, cooking, cleaning — while they focus on their studies and a healthy social life.

Brooklawn must look past the large financial benefits that will accrue from each teen it houses off campus and place the needs of these kids before its own.
-Robin Dillof Burnham, Louisville, 40205

'No comment,' says Cabinet to weeping mothers

Better child-welfare system sought
Familes air views on system at forum
Yetter, Deborah. Louisville Courier-Journal, Jan. 18, 2007, pg. B1.

FRANKFORT, Ky. — Yvonne Gagen said she believes being homeless and illiterate caused her to lose her children.

A weeping Gagen was among about 20 people who spoke at a public forum yesterday on how the state's child-welfare system could better serve parents and children.

"I don't understand why they took my kids away," said Gagen, 23, of Louisville, who said she never learned to read because of a learning disability.

About 75 people attended yesterday's forum, held to allow families to express their views about how the state handles child abuse and neglect allegations, foster care and adoption.

Many are members of a group called "Women in Transition," an organization representing low-income mothers, some of whom have been involved with child-protective services.

Officials with the Cabinet for Health and Family Services listened but didn't comment or address specific cases at the 2½-hour hearing.

Mark Washington, acting commissioner of social services, thanked those who spoke for their "openness and candor." He said all comments from the hearing will be provided to a task force studying the child-welfare system as part of its work to recommend improvements.

Speakers yesterday recommended changes including:

-Removing the confidentiality that surrounds abuse and neglect investigations and court proceedings.

-Holding social workers accountable to prevent abuses.

-Improving services through the ombudsman's office, which handles complaints.

-Producing clearer policies for when to remove a child from a home or terminate a parent's rights and make sure parents are informed of them.

-Giving parents better legal assistance, including possible help with appeals of adverse decisions.

Lorie Cox of Louisville said after her parental rights were terminated, she wanted to appeal but couldn't afford a lawyer.

"I went to the law libraries and did my own brief," said Cox, who said she is waiting to hear the results of the appeal.

Others suggested recent problems detailed in the cabinet's Hardin County region are more widespread.

An investigation released last week by the cabinet's inspector general found that some social workers and supervisors had lied in court, falsified records and mistreated families they were supervising.

"There should be a statewide, full-blown investigation," said Aldonica Kiger, 32, of Lexington.

Parents testify to problems; Cabinet hides behind confidentiality

Tales of horror about child welfare
Hearing reveals program problems
Alford, Roger. Kentucky Post, Jan. 18, 2007, pg. A6.

Dakota Greyhawk lost custody of his son last summer after state child welfare workers accused him of neglect and placed the boy in foster care.

The Louisville landscaper thought he would be able to clear the matter up and get 5-year-old Dakota Seth back home. Instead, Greyhawk said he has hit legal roadblocks at every turn, and he fears the state may put his son up for adoption.

"I feel like the system is nothing but a legalized black market for kids," Greyhawk said. "I want my kid back."

Greyhawk was among about 75 people who gathered in Frankfort on Wednesday for a public hearing that was intended to gather suggestions for improving the state's welfare system. Most of those who attended were biological parents or grandparents who told horror stories about children being "snatched" away by state workers.

The public hearing came just a week after the inspector general in the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services released a report detailing numerous problems in the state's foster care program in the Elizabethtown area.

Investigators planned to turn some evidence over to prosecutors to possible criminal conduct.

The report said some regional managers for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services abused their power in removing children from their biological parents, failed to follow standard operating procedures, and retaliated against staffers who complained about the problems.

David Richart, a longtime child welfare advocate in Kentucky, said testimony presented at the hearing showed that problems in the state system extend far beyond Elizabethtown.

Mother after mother walked to the microphone to tell their stories. Yvonne Gagen of Louisville lost custody of four children ranging in age from 1 to 5 years, and she said she was told it was because she couldn't read.

"Now they're gone," she said. "I have no life."

Lorie Cox of Louisville said social worker took her children based on a safety issue after she filed a domestic violence complaint again a former boyfriend. That was three years ago, and she said she has been unable to get her children back despite ongoing legal appeals.

"The system is very messed up," she said. "I'm desperate."

Vikki Franklin, spokeswoman for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, said she couldn't discuss any of the cases because of confidentiality laws.

Donna Crawford-Gongelez, right, comforts Yvonne Gagen while she speaks during a public hearing held by the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services at the Capitol Annex in Frankfort Wednesday.

Problems in Elizabethtown are also statewide

Parents out to strengthen child custody testify
Honeycutt-Spears, Valarie. Lexington Herald-Leader, Jan. 18, 2007, pg. C5.

FRANKFORT -- Parents whose children were removed by state social workers converged on Frankfort yesterday to officially record their stories.

They wanted to make sure their experiences would have an effect as legislation is drafted to make improvements in the way social workers remove children, place them in foster care and terminate parental rights to facilitate state adoptions.

One woman from Fayette County said common criminals are treated better than parents under investigation by state social service workers. She said the actions of social workers and court officials should be considered human trafficking.

Kentucky's inspector general issued a report last week on a yearlong investigation of a social service office in Elizabethtown, which showed that social workers lied in court, falsified documents, acted spitefully toward parents and focused on adoptions rather than reunifying families.

Inspector General Robert J. Benvenuti offered recommendations -- including opening court hearings on child removals -- that he said pointed to fixing problems across the state.Proposed legislation based on the OIG recommendations and those offered by the Cabinet for Health and Family Services's Blue Ribbon Panel on Adoption is expected to be presented to the General Assembly.

Several people who spoke yesterday said new laws should make sure social workers don't hold biological families to unreasonable standards.

Mary Henderson of Lexington said cabinet officials should realize the problems in Elizabethtown exist statewide.

Henderson's children were about to be adopted by foster parents in 2005 when Fayette Family Court Judge Tim Philpot decided Henderson had resolved her problems and should regain custody. State social workers were pushing to terminate Henderson's parental rights.

Henderson said yesterday she tried in vain to tell cabinet officials that state social workers were mishandling her case. And she says she's concerned because the same social workers continue to handle cases in Fayette County.

"When," Henderson asked, "is something going to be done?"

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Underpaid court-appointed counsel defending abused and neglected children

Family court attorney fees stand
Judge rules $500 is maximum pay
Wolfson, Andrew. Louisville Courier-Journal, Jan. 16, 2007, pg. B1.

Jefferson County's chief family court judge has ruled that courts have no choice but to enforce a $500 ceiling for payments to attorneys who represent indigent children and parents in abuse and neglect cases; even though the state acknowledges the fee is "woefully insufficient."

While there is "little doubt that quality attorneys" will no longer seek the appointments, Judge Stephen George said, judges cannot approve fees higher than allowed by the General Assembly.

George ruled Thursday in a case brought by six lawyers who claimed the $500 ceiling is unfair when cases are repeatedly returned to the court's docket after the initial disposition, for change of custody motions or other reviews.

The lawyers had filed motions seeking to find the Finance and Administration Cabinet in contempt of court for refusing to pay additional fees. The cabinet said it had no choice but to reject the requests , in part because of the General Assembly's failure last year to budget money for the payments.

George said in his ruling that the state acknowledged the maximum fee is "woefully insufficient" for cases that can stretch on for years. He cited one case that has been pending for 18 years and in which more than 400 pleadings have been filed.

George also noted that a state commission in 1998 found that the legislature should amend the fee system.

Lawyers for children in abuse, neglect and termination of parental rights cases are known as guardians ad litem; those who represent parents are called court-appointed counsel.

John Helmers, one of the lawyers who challenged the fees, said representatives from both specialty areas are expected to meet in the next couple of weeks to decide whether to appeal the ruling or to try to get the legislature to increase the fee.

M. Stephen Pitt, who represented the Finance Cabinet, said George "made the right decision and the only one that's allowed under the law, but he appropriately pointed out statute is in need of amendment by General Assembly."

Mark D. Birdwhistle, secretary of the Cabinet for Families and Children and chairman of a panel that is considering reforms in Kentucky's adoption law, said yesterday that a fee increase is "definitely on the table," according to Vicki Franklin, a cabinet spokeswoman.

Helmers said recent disclosures about abuses of power by state social workers and supervisors in the Hardin County region shows the importance of protecting the rights of children and parents in family court.

In Jefferson County's 10 family court divisions, about 30 lawyers are assigned to represent children and 40 others to represent parents.

George said that new federal and state requirements for reviews of placements have been enacted since the General Assembly set the fee cap and that it isn't fair to lawyers or their clients to require them to do more work for free.

"The importance of work done by GALs and CACs cannot be overstated," George said. "There are very few judicial acts that have as profound effects as the actions made involving the parent-child relationship."

Wrong to caricaturize victims of abuse as perpetrators and sexual abusers

Group home dispute gets heated
Councilman's remarks assailed
Yetter, Deborah. Louisville Courier-Journal, Jan. 17, 2007, pg. A1.

A dispute over a group home that Brooklawn Child & Family Services wants to open off Newburg Road has split the neighborhood and has Louisville Metro Councilman Jim King — who lives nearby — warning of "nuclear war."

The heated rhetoric and intensity of opposition caught Brooklawn by surprise, said David Graves, who runs the private residential center for emotionally disturbed youths on Goldsmith Lane.

Graves said he was particularly shocked by an anonymous flier handed out at a neighborhood meeting last week where King spoke. It calls on opponents to hold a protest Jan. 27 at Brooklawn's campus, suggesting the group home would bring in "an alien element and will destroy the quiet enjoyment of your property." - SELF-CENTERED

"To me, it's cruel to think children who've already been rejected time and time again would be subject to a group of people coming on campus and telling them they're not wanted," Graves said.

King said yesterday that he had nothing to do with the flier — he said it was produced by a resident — but he didn't object to it being handed out at the meeting.

"Everybody has First Amendment rights," he said. - EVEN COMPLETE A-HOLES

King, a Democrat who represents District 10, lives on Newburg Road near the proposed group home on Schuff Lane and recently purchased additional property, on which he proposes to build several homes for family and friends.

In e-mails to constituents and to Brooklawn, he has referred to the group home's potential residents as likely to be dangerous, violent and psychotic — which Graves said is incorrect.

Graves said the home would house up to eight teenage boys, ages 16 to 18, who have completed treatment at Brooklawn and need a place to live as they transition to independent life in the community through jobs, high school and college. Most would be victims of abuse and neglect, he said.

They would be supervised by Brooklawn staff; none would have felony convictions, Graves said.

King said several residents who oppose the home have hired a lawyer to challenge it, although they could not be reached yesterday.

Residents divided
Linda Mayer, president of the area's East Side Neighborhood Association, said that the group hasn't taken a position on the proposed home and that residents are divided on the issue.

Terry Singer, a neighbor who is dean of the University of Louisville's Kent School of Social Work, said he supports the proposal and is disappointed at some of King's comments.

"It's feeding the worst fears and it's not accurate," Singer said.

In a Nov. 11 e-mail to Brooklawn lawyer Carole Christian, King wrote that unless Brooklawn changes its plans for the site, "we will make every effort to impede Brooklawn's success."

He said Brooklawn should either sell the house and find another location or come up with an alternative to "keep this from becoming a nuclear war."

King also wrote in an e-mail to a constituent that some of the teens who would live at the group home "will be psychotic with a propensity for acting out sexually or violently."

He added in the e-mail, written to a supporter of the group home, that the youths would be "very capable of committing a sex crime against your wife and children."

King confirmed that he made those comments and said he stands by them. He said his main concern is that he doesn't believe the home meets zoning requirements.

Graves said zoning officials have told him the five-bedroom home that Brooklawn purchased last year needs no zoning change as long as it receives a state license, which Brooklawn is seeking.

Lack of space
Graves said that the state's child-welfare system is inundated with an increasing number of children and that Brooklawn routinely turns away youths for lack of room.

"It's just essential that we develop placement options for the children as they're ready to leave," he said.

Sheila Schuster, executive director of the Kentucky Mental Health Coalition, said her organization is appalled by what she said are King's inflammatory and inaccurate comments.

"We particularly don't need kids who have been victims of abuse mislabeled as perpetrators and sex abusers," Schuster said.

State funding opposed
King also has angered some local lawmakers who are seeking to restore $2 million in state funds cut last year from Brooklawn, which had planned to use the money to expand services and facilities, including group homes like the one in dispute.

In his e-mail to Brooklawn's attorney, King said some neighbors are "planning to employ a lobbyist to oppose Brooklawn's attempt to get $2 million from the state legislature."

That prompted a scolding from state Rep. Larry Clark, D-Louisville, a member of the House leadership. He said the Jefferson County legislative delegation is committed to making sure the state restores the money.

In a Dec. 7 letter to King, Clark cited Brooklawn's "proven track record in the community" and said he was "extremely concerned" about King's "intimidating, provocative rhetoric."

Rep. Tom Burch, D-Buechel, whose district includes Brooklawn, said he supports the group home and discussed the matter with King several weeks ago.

"I would say Jim is way off base in this," Burch said. "Who in their right mind in politics would attack children who have been abused?"

State administers 5,000 pregnancy tests per year

Pregnancy tests benefit inmates, babies, jails
Program, which began in September, aims to save state money, but jailer workload
Barrouquere, Brett. Lexington Herald-Leader, Jan. 14, 2007, pg. B4.

PEWEE VALLEY -- Nikisha Robinson was excited when a pregnancy test came up positive eight months ago. Robinson was less thrilled by where the test was taken -- in a Louisville jail.

Robinson, who is due in late January, was tested shortly after being taken into custody as part of a state program that identifies pregnant inmates and sends them to a women's prison, where the state takes care of their medical needs until the baby is born.

The program, which started in September, requires all women who were convicted, but still in a county jail, to undergo a pregnancy test. If the test is positive, the inmate is sent to the Kentucky Correctional Institute for Women in Pewee Valley, about 25 minutes east of Louisville.

The goal of the program is, ultimately, to save the state money by identifying pregnant inmates early so any potential problem pregnancies can be identified and treated, said Dr. Scott Haas, medical director for the Kentucky Department of Corrections.

Kentucky jails take in about 6,000 female inmates every year, of which about 80 percent are between 18 and 50 -- child-bearing age, Haas said. That leaves the state administering about 5,000 tests every year. The state corrections department bought 5,000 pregnancy tests from a vendor for less than $1 a test and distributed them to every jail in Kentucky with a memo on when and how to administer the test and what to do if the inmate was pregnant.

"Less than $5,000 a year is a small price to pay for what is really the right thing to do," Haas said. "The unborn child has not done anything to anyone. They should not be punished for the wrongs of their parents."

The program has proven popular with inmates, particularly Robinson, who is eight months into a 15-year sentence for violating her probation on a charge of facilitation to commit robbery.

"This is better than I thought," said Robinson, 22. "I thought it would be scary. All my questions are answered."

Jailers around Kentucky favor the program because it cuts down on work for the staff. Roger Webb, the Floyd County jailer in Eastern Kentucky, said that before the state started the pregnancy testing, female inmates were brought to the local health department for tests and medical visits.

"It'll save us from having to spend man hours and having an inmate out of a secure place in the jail," Webb said.

But the testing gets mixed reviews from Amanda Kreps-Long, director of the Reproductive Freedom Project of the ACLU in Kentucky. Kreps-Long said requiring the tests could be an invasion of privacy and sending the women to Pewee Valley might constitute a hardship by taking the inmate away from family and lawyers.

"That can be tough for a lot of women," Kreps-Long said.

There were 108 pregnant inmates at the prison in 2006, with 62 delivering last year, said Denise Burkett, the nurse practitioner at the prison. About two dozen women inmates were expected to deliver babies in January, Burkett said.

With Robinson's due date coming up, she knows there will be a trip to the hospital soon, but she doesn't know when. Prison officials haven't told Robinson when she'll be going to the hospital for a scheduled Caesarean section, nor has her family in Louisville been notified, Burkett said. Prison officials will tell Robinson the night before she is to go to the hospital.

"The reason we can't tell them in advance is it is an escape risk," Burkett said.

The lack of notification is standard for pregnant inmates, but frustrating to someone like Robinson.

"That's the only thing I hate about having a baby in jail. I can't tell my family," Robinson said. "They won't see him until he's three days old."

For inmates whose families can't or won't take care of the baby, the prison works with two organizations -- one in Louisville, the other in Eastern Kentucky -- to either house the newborns or place them in foster care, Burkett said. In some cases, the inmates get weekly visits from their children.

"They really, really enjoy that time," Burkett said. "That's kind of what helps them get by week to week without their babies."

Robinson's family will take care of the baby, who Robinson plans to name Demonte, while she waits to either be paroled or have her probation reinstated -- something that could take anywhere from a month to several years. That will ensure regular visits with the baby, Robinson said.

"I'll see him periodically," Robinson said. "My family says they're ready. We'll see."

If these abused foster youths are nonviolent, then rich people are being a-holes

Foes may test group home's zoning
But others think exemption applies
Yetter, Deborah. Louisville Courier-Journal, Jan. 17, 2007, pg. B1.

Some residents who don't want a group home for teenage boys to open off Newburg Road are prepared to challenge a state law that would allow it to open without a zoning change, a lawyer said yesterday.

Kenneth Plotnik, a lawyer hired by some opponents, said he believes the law doesn't apply to group homes such as the one Brooklawn Child & Family Services plans to open in a house on Schuff Lane.

Plotnik said the state law that exempts residential care facilities from additional zoning restrictions is meant for "a family or homelike setting" such as a foster home.

"A homelike setting in my mind requires a parent," he said.

But several people familiar with the state law said residents probably would lose a court fight challenging the law. Among them is state Rep. Tom Burch, D-Buechel, who supported the law when the General Assembly passed it in 1990.

"I know exactly what that law said, and I knew what it was going to do," Burch said.

Louisville Metro Council member Jim King, D-10th, who lives near the proposed home and represents the area on the council, said yesterday that he would accept the home if it survives a zoning challenge.

Previously he characterized youths who would live there as potentially violent and dangerous.

"If they are legally within their rights, I'll be one of the first people over there to meet the young men and try to make them feel welcome," said King.

Brooklawn, a residential center for abused and neglected youths, bought the five-bedroom house last year and plans to use it as a group home for eight teens from about age 16 through 18 who have completed treatment and are moving toward independent life.

Most would be victims of abuse and neglect, David Graves, Brooklawn's president, has said.

Brooklawn staff would supervise the youths.

Plotnik declined to identify the residents he represents but said they are ready to challenge the home in court. He said he will first ask local zoning officials to reconsider their stance that the home, zoned for residential use, doesn't require a zoning change or permit to operate.

Donovan Fornwalt, director of government affairs for the Council on Mental Retardation in Louisville, doubts opponents will prevail on the zoning issue.

Federal and state law support the provision that allows people with emotional or physical disabilities to live in settings such as group homes without zoning changes, he said.

Fornwalt said he hopes Brooklawn and residents can work out an agreement without a court fight.

"Ultimately, we want the neighborhood to be at peace with this decision," he said..

In a related development, opponents have dropped plans for a protest rally at Brooklawn Jan. 27.

Graves said he is relieved. He said Brooklawn hadn't planned to allow any protesters onto its property on Goldsmith Lane.

Neighborhood resident Robin Burnham said she helped prepare the flier calling for the protest and saying the home would bring "an alien element" into the neighborhood.

She said opponents are considering a protest rally at another location but haven't finalized plans.

Burnham said she opposes the group home because she believes the boys who would live there should live in a more structured setting, such as a foster home with parents. She also said boys in the group home might feel out of place in the "wealthy" neighborhood.

"I think it leads to more resentment about their situation," she said. - BULLSHIT

Graves said Brooklawn would prefer to place children in foster and adoptive homes, but an acute shortage of such placements has forced Brooklawn to try to find other solutions for teens who have completed its program but have no home to return to.

"Everyone here at Brooklawn would wholeheartedly agree that foster and adoptive homes are preferable, but they are not forthcoming," he said.

I wish I had a guardian ad litem while I was in foster care

Youth program proves perfect challenge
Schneider, Grace. Louisville Courier-Journal, Jan. 15, 2007, pg. B3.

Gloria Wood was scanning the classified ads for a part-time job two years ago when she spotted a listing that jumped out:

"Program director — Assist in recruiting, screening and interviewing volunteers for a youth program. Provide training and supervision ... need strong organizational skills ... work a flexible schedule."

It all sounded right up Wood's alley.

"I love a challenge in putting things together," said Wood, 64, of Lanesville.

She's the part-time executive director of Harrison County's new Court Appointed Special Advocates program, known as CASA.

The volunteers she recruits and trains are matched with children of all ages who wind up — primarily through abuse and neglect — in the court system.

Volunteers are asked to gain children's trust and advocate for them while their case works its way to a resolution. Many last an average of two years.

Several times last week as Wood talked in her downtown Corydon office, she took phone calls from volunteers who are working to help children.

One, for instance, wanted to talk about a particularly "tense" situation facing the child that she was helping. Another called about an upcoming court date.

Wood is widely credited with getting the program off to a solid start after an initial effort shut down a decade ago. She also persuaded Harrison leaders to fund most of the $37,558 budget this year from casino tax revenues.

Under a recent state law, all cases involving children in need of services — referred to as CHINS in the court system — must receive assistance from a guardian ad litem, or a court-appointed special advocate. Harrison still appoints some guardians, usually lawyers enlisted at a reduced hourly fee.

But those costs add up, Harrison Circuit Judge H. Lloyd "Tad" Whitis said.

Whitis researched starting a CASA program before the state mandate, thinking it would help the court do a better job helping youngsters whose lives already are in turmoil.

"There was a need because no one really represented the needs of the children," Whitis recalled.

Because of the relatively large volume of cases — 57 in the p ast year or so — the judge hired referee Susan Umpleby, a Paoli lawyer, to handle the proceedings.

And nearly two years ago he hired Wood, who had taken early retirement a decade ago from the Veterans Administration. Wood took courses on CASA rules and has since begun recruiting and training Harrison's volunteers, 14 women and six men.

Among them are a restaurant cook, a day-care operator, an electrical engineer and a retired principal. Nineteen more people will start a new training course Feb. 3.

Wood matches volunteers with each of the current caseload of 38 children, from 9 months to 17 years old. The volunteers consult with caseworkers, meet weekly with the child and get acquainted with the family or foster caregivers.

Volunteers also attend court proceedings involving the child and eventually recommend a course of action to the court on what they think is best for the youngster.

The information is valuable, Whitis said, because "we've learned a lot more about the kids. We feel we're more informed before we make a decision."

Wood grew up on Smith Creek Road near Lanesville, where she now lives with her husband, Don. They have one grown son.

She's been active at St. John's Lutheran Church and in other volunteer activities. None of it quite prepared her for the world of abused and neglected children that she's seen through CASA.

"I thought Harrison County had no problems," she said. "I've lived a sheltered life."

She's pleased to get a chance to make a difference.

"We have helped so many children," Wood said, giving the credit to the volunteers.

"They are tremendous," she said. "I can't say enough about them."

The CASA program accepts applications continuously and new classes are held periodically to train volunteers. For information, call Gloria Wood at 738-3645, or write to 233 N. Capitol Ave., Room 202, Corydon, IN 47112.

Foster youth denied normal rite-of-passage activities

Foster kids who 'age out' at 18 need help with transition
Many find themselves homeless and unable to cope
Crary, David. Lexington Herald-Leader, Jan. 14, 2007, pg. A6.

NEW YORK -- Articulate and engaging, 20-year-old Shakhina Bellamy appears -- at first meeting -- an unlikely fit in the ranks of New York City's homeless.

Yet after she tells her story, through tears and flashes of anger, her state of limbo seems an almost inevitable result of an adolescence spent bouncing through a dozen group homes and foster families as a ward of New York's child welfare agency.

She entered the system at 9 and walked away from it at 17.

"I didn't leave because I thought I was grown up -- I left because no one was helping me," she said.

Across the country, child welfare advocates are increasingly aware of the problems faced by young people like Bellamy -- 20,000 or so each year who "age out" of the foster care system with neither an adoptive nor a blood-relation family to support them. Scores of state and local initiatives are being launched to assist them; their plight may be addressed by the new Democratic majority in Congress.

But front-line child welfare workers say even the best new programs won't suffice without the hard work of engaging foster children one-on-one as they enter adolescence, soliciting their input and mentoring them in ways that replicate the best of a parent-child relationship. Bellamy agrees.

"You have to really talk to the kids, understand what they're going through and listen when they complain," she said. "If you don't, there are always going to be problems."

At present, youths are eligible to leave the foster care system when they turn 18. They often have the option of remaining in it voluntarily, but advocacy groups say many are pressured to move on or -- if they make their own decision to leave -- are not provided with good advice about how to adjust.

"As a society, we have failed young people aging out of foster care," asserts Lynne Echenberg of the Children's Aid Society, a private New York agency. "Despite conclusive research showing how vulnerable they are upon discharge from care, these young adults continue to exit the child welfare system to lives of uncertainty, pain, destitution and marginalization."

Dismaying statistics
Studies by experts across the country show dismaying statistics for those who age out of foster care. Fewer than half complete high school; many have no jobs and no home except for a friend's couch to crash on. Their rates of arrests, health problems and welfare dependency are far higher than for contemporaries with families of their own.

One potentially helpful step would be to extend more foster-case protections from age 18 to age 21, as Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., has proposed. Many experts also are pushing for changes much earlier in the process, contending that foster children as young as 12 or 13 need extra help preparing for the transition to adulthood.

"Foster care is a hypervigilant system -- focusing on safety and protection," said Robin Nixon of the National Foster Care Coalition. "These young people, as they move into later adolescence, don't get to do the normal rite-of-passage activities that actually prepare kids for adulthood -- getting a driver's license, working. They're kept psychologically dependent on other people making decisions."

Then, after an often disjointed adolescence, many leave the system at 18 unready for independence, Nixon said.

"For every other kid, the time they're allowed to be dependent on their family has continually extended, but, for what I think are financial reasons, we've not allowed that extension with foster kids," she said.

A plan that works
Across the country, much of the innovative work with older foster children is being done by private non-profits such as the Children's Aid Society. It recently opened a one-stop resource center in the Bronx, offering guidance on jobs, housing, health care, education and legal problems.

"When it works, the magic is not that it's all at one location," said the society's CEO, C. Warren Moses. "It works because the kids helped design it, plan it. ... We respect what they're thinking about."

Among the center's clients is Shakhina Bellamy; one of her latest projects there was to compile a resume for use in her job hunt.

Her odyssey through the foster care system came about because of her mother's on-again, off-again drug abuse. At one point eight years ago they were reunited, but ended up in a homeless shelter, and Bellamy was forced back into the system at 14 when her mother relapsed into drugs.

Bellamy spent the next three years moving among different group homes and foster homes, sometimes with Hispanic foster parents who spoke virtually no English. In one home, she said, she was locked in an attic at night by the foster mother; few of the adults overseeing her seemed to care about her future.

Bellamy pleaded with caseworkers for better living arrangements, but they said options were limited for a foster child her age. So at 17, she dropped out of the system -- going AWOL, as it is known among child-welfare agencies.

She managed to graduate from high school in Harlem -- but was one of the few in her class with no relatives attending commencement. She briefly tried college, but found it unmanageable without family or financial support to back her up.

She has had three jobs over the past four years -- the longest for four months -- and now is both jobless and without a permanent home, moving from spare bed to spare bed in apartments of friends and an aunt.

Though she has had to fend for herself, in far more challenging ways than most Americans her age, she doesn't consider herself to have any edge over them.

"If I was from a good home, maybe I could be in college now, or have a job," she said. "I wouldn't have to worry about having food. I'd be around people I'm used to, people I could fall back on."

Raising himself
Like Bellamy, 19-year-old John Jackson has no job or fixed address and says he received little mentoring while drifting through nine New York foster homes and group homes starting at age 5.

Of all the foster parents and social workers he encountered, he said there was only one adult -- a male caseworker -- who cared enough to get to know him and serve as a mentor.

No one else? Jackson shook his head. "I was raising myself," he said.

Jackson said he was moved so often -- changing schools each time -- that he constantly felt rootless and lonely. He gestured toward some of the other ex-foster children at the Bronx resource center.

"I call them my family," he said. "This is the first time I can say I have friends."

Acknowledging past problems, New York's Administration for Children's Services adopted a new plan last summer to improve prospects for the roughly 1,200 young people who age out of foster care in the city each year. Only about 20 percent are adopted or reunited with their biological families.

One noteworthy goal in the Preparing Youths for Adulthood plan -- perhaps difficult to achieve -- is to ensure that each youth leaving foster care has at least one designated adult to rely on for guidance and support.

"We're talking to the young people to identify the important adults in their lives," said Dodd Terry, who oversees the agency's youth development office. "That's a significant shift -- actually incorporating them as planners in the process."

Other goals, Terry said, include closer examination of why foster children are moved from one home to another, and intensified efforts to track down and help young people like Bellamy who go AWOL.

"It's a huge task," Terry said. "We're engaging in a dialogue to say we must do better, and we're going to do better. We're looking at it as, 'What would we do if this was our child?'"

Bellamy is allowed to store her personal belongings at an aunt's house but cannot live there, leaving her homeless. She spent her adolescent years bouncing through group homes and foster families.

Shakhina Bellamy, 20, who left the New York foster system at age 17, got help filling out forms to apply for subsidized housing last month.

Secrecy creates constant threat of abuse of process

Open child-removal court hearings urged
Those involved predict tough fight over issue
Honeycutt-Spears, Valarie. Lexington Herald-Leader, Jan. 13, 2007, pg. A1.

Secrecy has long shrouded court proceedings in Kentucky involving the removal of children from their biological families and the termination of parental rights.

This week, in a report critical of the way some state social workers took children from their parents, state Inspector General Robert J. Benvenuti called for the General Assembly to change laws so that those particular court proceedings are open.

Though at least 20 states across the country allow some level of transparency in child removal cases, several people involved in Kentucky's child protective and court systems said yesterday that the issue is likely to bring on a tough fight in Kentucky.

"I think it's something we need to look at, but I don't think it's something we should rush into," said State Rep. Susan Westrom, a Lexington Democrat who has been involved in adoption and foster care issues. "We need to work with the experts to see what the pros and cons are."

David Richart, the executive director of the Louisville-based National Institute for Children Youth and Families, said that opponents to the open-court hearings fear that children will be unfairly stigmatized if the media publishes details about alleged abuse or neglect.

Richart said he would favor a change in the law that would allow more transparency in such cases. But along with that, he would also recommend that the media follow voluntary guidelines that would afford protections to the vulnerable -- children and people terrified of coming forward with complaints. - I AGREE

Jon Fleischaker, general counsel for the Kentucky Press Association, recalled the "strong institutional resistance" that his group has faced in the General Assembly and in court challenges. The KPA has unsuccessfully fought to open court cases involving juveniles, including those involving abuse, neglect and termination of parental rights. Fleischaker said opening the child removal court cases "is long overdue."

"When you have secrecy, you have a real and constant threat of abuse of process," he said.

In 2000, the National Center for State Courts in Virginia published findings from a federal Children's Bureau conference with state officials about public access to child abuse and neglect proceedings. The consensus reached by the Children's Bureau was that the open courts held child welfare systems accountable and did not have negative consequences on children's rights, as long as judges had some discretion to close individual cases.

The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges supports the idea of opening such cases as long as judges are given the option of closing proceedings on a case by case basis, said David Gamble, a senior information specialist.

In Kentucky, the Inspector General's recommendation followed a yearlong investigation of a state social worker office in Elizabethtown. Said Benvenuti's report: "Allowing the proceedings to be open, with exception only by court order, will provide the most fail-proof form of oversight."

The investigation uncovered inappropriate and possibly criminal behavior against biological families.

Benvenuti's office and a Cabinet for Health and Family Services task force are both reviewing complaints that some state social workers improperly took children from their families and put them into foster care to increase the number of state adoptions. New state laws designed to fix the problems are in the works, but the legislation hasn't been unveiled yet.

Westrom said she has called a meeting for late February so family court lawyers and child advocates can scrutinize proposed bills.

Westrom expects that the proposal to open the child removal cases will be high on the meeting agenda because it has the potential to increase oversight, but she doesn't anticipate that the change will become law without an extended debate.

Fleischaker said people need only look at the Inspector General's report to understand how much the open court proceedings would protect children.

"If it could happen in Elizabethtown," said Fleischaker, "it could be happening in other places."

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Hearing is open the public to share their views on foster care

Local News Headline: Comments sought on child protective services
Comments sought on child protective services
Courier-Journal, Jan. 16, 2007.

Anyone who wants to comment on the state’s child protective service system will get a chance at public hearing from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. Wednesday in Frankfort.

The hearing is part of a review of how the state handles allegations of child abuse and neglect by a panel appointed by Mark D. Birdwhistell, secretary of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services. The panel is reviewing issues including removal of children from homes and the cabinet’s adoptive and foster care services.

Those who wish to speak must sign up at the hearing and are asked to limit comments to five minutes each. Because of confidentiality, they are asked not to reveal details about specific children but rather offer suggestions on how the system could be improved.The meeting will be in Room 169 at the Capitol Annex.

Editorial: Sundering of families demands reforms
Louisville Courier-Journal, Jan. 15, 2007, pg. A6.

A 12-month investigation has turned up shocking abuse and neglect by some social workers and supervisors in Hardin County who unjustifiably took children away from parents. Investigators for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services' Office of the Inspector General spent 5,000 hours looking into nearly 400 allegations of wrongdoing.

Many of the problems, the report said, "were long-standing and, to a certain extent, part of a culture" that had developed in the Lincoln Trail region of the Department for Community Based Services.

The investigators found that records had been falsified, that courts had been deliberately misled and that placements, including "permanency decisions," had been made subjectively and without proper oversight.

As well, parents who complained and whistle-blowing staffers were intimidated and retaliated against.

Some social workers actually "boasted about making it difficult" for clients, the report said, and "thrived on the power of controlling certain families."

And they were largely able to do so, according to the investigators, because the Patton administration's decision to decentralize community-based services in Hardin County produced the opposite of what was intended: unaccountable fiefdoms populated by ostensible public servants nicknamed "The Queen of Removal" and "The Terminator."

None of the Hardin County social workers or supervisors was named in the report, but 13 cases of potential individual criminal conduct have already been turned over to the appropriate prosecuting authorities

Tom Emberton Jr., undersecretary for social services, told The Courier-Journal's Deborah Yetter that most of the top supervisors in the Hardin office have already been replaced, and that there's now a management team in the region that reports to him.

These are good steps.

But what concerned Kentuckians should demand is that the Fletcher administration and the General Assembly act quickly and decisively on Inspector General Robert J. Benvenuti III's key recommendation.

It is that "the cloak of secrecy that currently dominates the process is not in the best interest of Kentucky's children and must be removed as part of any material reform."

Secrecy doesn't protect children; it fosters their harm.

Falsifying records, misleading judges and retaliating against complainers

Report criticizes social workers
Inquiry finds lies, falsified records
Yetter, Deborah. Louisville Courier-Journal, Jan. 12, 2007, pg. A1.

State social workers and supervisors in the Hardin County region lied in court, falsified records about child abuse and neglect cases and mistreated parents and children, a state investigation has found.

In 13 cases, alleged violations have been referred to local prosecutors for possible criminal charges, according to the report released yesterday by the inspector general for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

"Such individual conduct is cause for grave concern and must not in any way whatsoever be condoned, minimized or excused," according to the report from Inspector General Robert J. Benvenuti III.

The workers are not named in the report, and state officials declined to identify them or say how many are involved, saying they don't want to jeopardize possible criminal charges or disciplinary action.

Mary Henderson, a Lexington mother of four who has testified before two state panels in the past year about her problems with the child welfare system, called the findings "heart-wrenching."

"I think about how many families that have been affected by illegal and immoral behavior," she said.

The investigation was triggered by a report by advocates a year ago that found families in that region believed they were treated badly by the system, that their rights were ignored and social workers hastily sought removal of children from homes for so-called "quick trigger adoptions."

The inspector general's report did not substantiate the adoption allegation but found other problems.

The report found that most social workers are dedicated and honest, but some in the eight-county Lincoln Trail social service region operated a rogue child welfare system "free from any meaningful oversight," the report said.

The year-long investigation focused on conduct of state workers in cases where children were removed from their parents — sometimes permanently — and placed in adoptive or foster homes.

Sharon Ray of Elizabethtown, who battled the local social service office for several years to get custody of her step grandson, who had been severely abused, said she's glad problems she observed have been exposed.

"What really bothered me is that they weren't acting in the child's best interest," she said.

'Cloak of secrecy must be removed'
Tom Emberton Jr., state undersecretary for social services, said he doesn't know immediately how the cabinet can correct problems in past cases, but officials will try to do so.

He said most top supervisors at the Hardin office have been replaced and a management team at the region reports to him.

The inspector general's report lists a number of recommendations to improve the system and reduce the possibility of abuses. But its primary recommendation is for the state to eliminate the secrecy that surrounds the child welfare system and court proceedings involving child abuse and neglect.

"We strongly believe that the cloak of secrecy that currently dominates the process is not in the best interests of Kentucky's children and must be removed as part of any material reform," it said.

Worse than suspected

Alleged violations cited in the report include:

-Workers falsified records showing they had conducted home visits of families under investigation. Also, supervisors sometimes ordered social workers to conduct home visits when no one was home to make it appear families were not cooperative.

-Workers added or omitted information in case files to mislead judges who must decide whether to terminate parents' rights. Some workers also gave false testimony in court about cases.

-Workers ignored parents' complaints about problems in foster homes, including one case in which the biological mother had said her children were filthy, poorly clothed and lice-infested when she saw them. Investigators found the foster home dirty, cluttered and foul-smelling, with dogs and goats in a yard that was overgrown and strewn with trash.

-Supervisors sometimes created their own policies, and arbitrarily tried to remove children from homes. In one case, a judge became so angry at how social workers treated a family whose children had been removed temporarily that he told them "they no longer needed to cooperate with the cabinet."

-Workers who tried to report wrongdoing said they suffered retaliation. In one case, supervisors sought to discipline a worker who had provided evidence to the inspector general during the investigation.

Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, which helped produce the report, called the findings "shocking."

"It's worse than we ever suspected," said Brooks, whose organization compiled its report on the Hardin County region along with David Richart, a longtime youth advocate in Louisville and director of the National Institute on Children, Youth and Families.

The report does not state a motive for the alleged wrongdoing but cited a "culture" among some workers "which thrived on the power of controlling certain families."

Richart said that is consistent with what the advocates found through interviews with families and workers in the Hardin County region.

"There are people who are power hungry working cases," he said.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Social service issues demand full light of day in order to ensure integrity of process

Foster care process criticized
Inspector general criticizes process
McGurk, Margaret A. Cincinnati Enquirer, Jan. 14, 2007

Kentucky cannot serve its most vulnerable children until it tears away the "cloak of secrecy" that envelops the state foster-care system, according to Inspector General Robert J. Benvenuti.

Responding to a 2005 study that pointed to improper operations in Hardin County, Benvenuti documented a long list of violations and bad behavior, such as falsifying records, bullying parents and retaliating against people who complained.

He came up with 17 specific recommendations for reform: No. 1 was to open up the proceedings where families' futures are decided, a step he called "the most fail-proof form of oversight."

"Simply stated, these are not matters of national security," Benvenuti wrote. "Rather, they are social-service issues that demand the full light of day in order to better ensure the integrity of the process. The fact that children are involved in the process should no longer be used as an excuse to protect these proceedings from meaningful public oversight."

The head of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services agrees; open hearings are part of a reform package headed to the Kentucky Legislature in February, said Mark D. Birdwhistell, secretary of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

"By making process more transparent, we can go a long way to preventing these problems," he said.

More than a dozen states, including Washington, Missouri and Minnesota, have opened up the courts that handle foster cases.

In Ohio, judges may allow or deny access.

The Enquirer is seeking access to a Clermont County juvenile court that will decide on custody for the children of Liz and David J. Carroll Jr., who face murder charges stemming from the death of their 3-year-old foster child, Marcus Fiesel.

Benvenuti launched the probe after Kentucky Youth Advocates and the Louisville-based National Institute for Children and Families collected hundreds of complaints from parents, relatives, foster parents and social workers.

Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, said the study found few complaints of misconduct in the Northern Kentucky region that includes Boone, Kenton and Campbell counties, but that inconsistency was common.

"We called the report 'Kentucky's Other Lottery' because what happens when you called in a problem depended on what county you lived in and which worker you got," Brooks said.

The Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services took the issues seriously, Brooks said. "When we presented them the findings in the report, they acted on it with all due speed," he said.

As for the report, he said, "What impressed me was he went beyond the numbers. The fact he was able to talk about things like intimidation and the sense of omnipotence among some workers ... tells me he really listened, and that the recommendations are valid, are grounded in reality."

Benvenuti appointed a trio of former police officers to investigate.

They found:
-False and backdated reports, including false signatures, and poor record-keeping.
-Burdensome, unneeded demands on parents and lack of services to help families reunite.
-Lack of training and supervision, arbitrary decision making and contemptuous attitudes toward clients.
-Lack of consistent, fact-based decision-making processes.
-Threats and retaliation against employees and clients who complained or who cooperated with the inspector general's investigation.

Failure by state officials to demand action on complaints that had been found justified by the cabinet's ombudsman.

Indifferent and unprofessional performance by guardians ad litem, who represent children in court, and by lawyers appointed to represent parents.

Birdwhistell said the original study touched off a series of administrative changes, as well as the inspector general's investigation. "We could not wait till we got to the (investigation's) results before we did anything," he said.

For instance, a statewide reorganization cut the number of service regions from 16 to nine, with consistent rules and procedures in all of them, he said.

Meanwhile, a panel of parents, experts and professionals held hearings and drafted improvement plans. Their ideas include better training for everyone from social workers to juvenile judges, defining clear-cut parental rights, and guaranteeing lawyers for those who find themselves facing the loss of their children.

Brooks also applauded Benvenuti's report for citing a lack of family support as an underlying reason children are taken away. "Part of his report that some kids are getting removed from the home because we as a state failed to support parents in creating a good home.

"In many ways this is a moral issue," Brooks said. "If we as a state can provide support for wild elk, we probably need to provide support for children and families."

Report highlights
Among the 17 recommendations from the Office of the Inspector General on strengthening Kentucky's child-protection system:

-Open court proceedings about removal of children and termination of parental rights, subject to court orders to close specific cases.

-Create statewide inspection teams to make unannounced visits to regional offices to make sure they are following correct procedures.

-Redefine overly broad legal definitions of abuse, neglect and dependency.

-Send police officers along on cases when social workers face threats.

-Require follow-up on complaints found justified by the cabinet's ombudsman.

State investigators find abuse of power and absence of oversight

Investigators: Problems in foster care program
Cincinatti Post, Jan. 12, 2007.

FRANKFORT - State investigators found numerous problems in the state's foster care program in the Elizabethtown area and will alert prosecutors to possible criminal conduct, according to an inspector general's report released Thursday.

Investigators found that some regional managers for the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services abused their power in removing children from their biological parents, failed to follow standard operating procedures, and retaliated against staffers who complained about the problems.

To prevent such problems in the future, investigators recommended opening court proceedings that deal with terminating parental rights, implementing inspection teams to make unannounced visits to child welfare offices across the state, and reviewing every case that includes a recommendation for termination of parental rights.

Health and Family Services Secretary Mark D. Birdwhistell said he has reviewed the report and is prepared to act on it.

"I find it troubling, but not entirely surprising," he said in a statement.

Investigators said they found a culture that thrived on the power of controlling families by removing children from their biological parents and terminating their parental rights.

The Lincoln Trail office in Elizabethtown was allowed to operate autonomously by accepting, rejecting or altering standard operating procedures at will, investigators said in the report. Regional managers, according to the report, were able to act at their sole discretion, free from any meaningful oversight.