Thursday, January 11, 2007

Supervisors abused their power in removing children and retaliated against staff who complained

Inspector General finds problems in foster care program
Alford, Roger. Lexington Herald-Leader, Jan. 11, 2007.

FRANKFORT, Ky. - 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.

"For example, we believe strongly, the cloak of secrecy that currently dominates this process is not in the best interest of Kentucky's children and must be removed as part of any material reform," the inspector general's report said.

"Simply stated, these are not matters of national security, wherein effectiveness often requires secrecy. 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."
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.

When staffers complained about the way the Elizabethtown office was handling cases, the complaints were not properly investigated. Investigators said those who raised concerns would be disciplined, even fired.

"At minimum, this environment allowed the now-discovered misconduct to continue," the investigators said.

The inspector general's office said evidence of possible criminal activity will be sent to prosecutors with the next month.

"Such individual misconduct is cause for grave concern and must not, in any way whatsoever, be condoned, minimized, or excused," investigators said in the report.

Birdwhistell said the problems have to do with decentralized management that lacked appropriate checks and balances to protect the integrity of the system.

The investigation began after the Louisville-based National Institute on Children, Youth and Families Inc. and the Kentucky Youth Advocates released a report raising questions about the state's adoption system in the Lincoln Trail region, which includes eight counties in the central part of the state around Elizabethtown.

The groups had received numerous complaints about children in the area being abruptly taken from their families and rushed into adoption.

Child advocates have said they're worried children are being pushed through the adoption process so the state can qualify for more federal funding.

The Department for Community Based Services was realigned last September, and 16 regions were combined into nine. Lincoln Trail joined with a neighboring region to form the 17-county Salt River Trail Region.

The reorganization allows for more accountability by enhancing supervision, requiring more supervisory training, giving staff greater access to front-line supervisors and providing more support from the central office.

"It's important to note that the vast majority of our staff do a tremendous job and are dedicated to their work," said Tom Emberton Jr., Kentucky's undersecretary for children and family services.

The state also will continue to use foster care review boards, which are managed by the Administrative Office of the Courts, to provide a system of checks and balances to protect foster children.

"Our investigators worked diligently to ensure the allegations were fully and thoroughly investigated," said Inspector General Robert J. Benvenuti III. "We believe the recommendations we have made will have a positive impact on both the cabinet and the citizens of the Commonwealth."


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