Monday, February 26, 2007

$2.5 million is better than nothing; still need to advocate for more staff

Panel restores $2.5 million to aid children, social workers
Yetter, Deborah, Louisville Courier-Journal, Feb. 23, 2007, pg. B5.

FRANKFORT, Ky. — Lawmakers restored some money yesterday to a bill aimed at upgrading the state's child welfare system and improving safety for social workers.

The House Health and Welfare Committee last week stripped about $21million from House Bill 362, named the "Boni Frederick Bill" after the Kentucky social service aide killed on the job in October

That prompted an outcry from social workers and criticism from Gov. Ernie Fletcher, who accused House leaders of "gutting" the bill.

So yesterday, the committee added $2.5 million — enough for some improvements but not enough to hire the 300 additional social service workers the state says it needs.

"It appears to be a first step," said Tom Emberton Jr., undersecretary with the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, who said he will seek more funds from lawmakers.

Several social workers who attended yesterday's hearing said they still believe more workers are needed to handle the growing number of cases of child abuse and neglect.

"I do feel a little better," said Katy Mullins, a social worker supervisor from Kenton County. "But I still think we need to advocate for more staff."

The state is seeking about $18million to hire more social workers and aides — funds that the committee stripped from the bill.

Members said House Democratic leaders had directed the change, saying they didn't want to reopen the two-year budget approved last year.

House Speaker Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green, said yesterday that he supported restoring the $2.5million and that it wasn't prompted by last week's criticism.

Nor did he rule out adding more money to hire social workers.

If lawmakers can't add the funds this year, Richards said he would support allocating "significantly more money" next year for hiring more workers and other improvements to the system.

Money added to the bill yesterday would go toward creating secure centers around the state where parents could visit with children removed from homes; upgrading security at social service offices; and providing emergency radio equipment to social workers. The bill now goes to the full House.

Money for visitation centers; still need more social workers

$2.5 million added to Boni bill -
Measure doesn't add social workers
Vos, Sarah. Lexington Herald-Leader, Feb. 23, 2007, pg. C3.

FRANKFORT -- A House committee appropriated $2.5 million to improve social worker safety yesterday. The money was added to the Boni Bill, which is named in honor of Boni Frederick, a social worker who was killed last fall while supervising a visit between a toddler and his biological mother.

The money will allow the Cabinet for Health and Family Services to spend $1.8 million on visitation centers for foster children and their biological parents, $500,000 on safety improvements at regional offices and $200,000 on safety devices, such as panic buttons, for front-line staff.

Like the previous bill, the revised one gives social workers access to criminal background checks and requires them to report, and the department to track, threats and violence again them. It also sets up a task force to study the needs of front-line staff.

Neither bill provided money to hire additional social workers.

Katy Mullins, a state social worker in Kenton County, said the new bill, with money attached, was better than the one passed by the committee last week.

"There's more progress that needs to be made," said Mullins, who attended the hearing. "We need more social workers to do this job."

Tom Emberton, the undersecretary of children and family services at the Cabinet, said the change was a step in the right direction. The Cabinet, however, will try to persuade legislators to appropriate more money before the legislative session ends.

"It's not dead," Emberton said. "We're going to continue to push it."

Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher originally had asked for more than $18 million to allow the Cabinet to hire more than 300 social workers and staff and make other improvements. House leadership at first refused to appropriate any money, saying that in a short session, they didn't want to open the budget.

"The actions taken today are a step in the right direction," Fletcher said in a statement, "but they are still short of adequate."

Earlier this week, Fletcher and House Speaker Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green, who is running for governor, exchanged terse words over the matter. Both men have accused the other of playing politics with the bill.

Richards said yesterday he supported adding the $2.5 million this year and more money next year, after a blue ribbon task force, which the bill creates, reports back to the legislature. In addition, the bill gives the Cabinet the authority to use $2.5 million in its current budget to hire more social workers.

Emberton was skeptical that the Cabinet would have any surplus to hire social workers. Richards dismissed that concern.

"You're telling me of an $18.5 billion budget, we couldn't find $2.5 million to hire more social workers?" Richards said. "I think we can."

Sunday, February 25, 2007

State Senator wants funding back in Boni bill

Adoption bill back on track, sponsor says
Honeycutt-Spears, Valarie. Lexington Herald-Leader, Feb. 22, 2007, pg. B3.

FRANKFORT -- The foster care adoption bill should be intact and back on track for passage in the legislature by week's end, the bill's sponsor says.

State Sen. Julie Denton, R-Louisville, says she expects that a key provision requiring judges to warn parents that their children in foster care could be taken away permanently will be restored by the Senate Judiciary committee.

Kentucky's Inspector General recently found possible criminal activity in the way that state social workers promote adoptions of foster children over reunification with their families.

A state task force that drafted legislation to correct the problems deemed parent-education important because families aren't consistently told up front that they could lose their children permanently.

Lawmakers cut the provision last week, drawing criticism from child advocates. In its place was language authorizing Kentucky's chief justice to establish administrative rules regarding child removal cases.

Denton said she wants stronger wording back in Senate Bill 141 to require judges to issue written and oral warnings to biological parents.

When the bill is voted on by the full Senate and then in the House, it will contain several other components that could help protect parents' rights.

The legislation requires both biological parents to be notified that their parental rights could be terminated. It allows indigent parents to have an attorney for their first appearance in court, and gives them more days to prepare for court.

Also, Sen. Ernesto Scorsone, D-Lexington, has filed an amendment that would allow judges to set fees for court-appointed attorneys based on the amount of work they do for indigent parents.

The quality of representation that court-appointed attorneys provide for indigent parents also is under scrutiny.

Other bills aimed at improving the child removal process in Kentucky haven't yet made progress in the General Assembly.

--One piece of legislation mandates training for judges on child protection issues, and another would lead to better management of complaints from biological families to the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

--Yet another bill calls for a legislative investigation of possible crimes and bad treatment of biological parents by state social workers who arrange adoptions of state foster children.

Meanwhile, Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, is concerned that in Kentucky, grandparents and other appropriate extended relatives aren't consistently given preference over strangers. Burch wants a law that will keep more children with relatives to come out of the 2007 legislative session.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Without funding, Boni Bill is just a piece of paper

House backs off funds to boost social workers
Schreiner, Bruce. Kentucky Post, Feb. 16, 2007, pg. A9.

A bill aimed at strengthening protections for Kentucky social workers, stemming from a child welfare worker's slaying, emerged from a House committee Thursday without a commitment for additional state funds to do the job.

The measure would allow the Cabinet for Health and Family Services to shift up to $2.5 million in existing funds to deal with "immediate emergency safety needs." A task force would be formed to look at a broad range of problems -- from recruitment and pay for social workers to caseloads and safety issues.Social workers and their advocates expressed disappointment with the revised bill that won approval from the House Health and Welfare Committee.

"Without funding, it's a piece of paper," Cynthia Howard, a social worker from Louisville, said afterward. "A plan without real financial backing is not a plan."

Health and Family Services Secretary Mark Birdwhistell said the cabinet already has reshuffled existing money it could find to try to enhance safety.

"There's a misperception that we have a lot of loose change," he told the committee. "It's going to take more than loose change to make this happen."

The original bill called for about $20 million over the next 16 months to add more than 300 social services staffers, including 225 social workers, to the state payroll. It also proposed equipping all state social workers with two-way radios equipped with panic buttons. It said that supervised visits between birth parents and their abused or neglected children take place in neutral locations.

The legislation stemmed from last year's death of Boni Frederick, who was stabbed and beaten when she took a 10-month-old boy to his mother's house for a visit near Henderson in October.

The committee-approved bill, named in Frederick's honor, would allow social workers to request quick criminal background checks when working cases.

The measure also would require social workers to report any physical or verbal abuse on the job, and the state would track those incidents. Also, the bill would designate employees to assess the possibility of cases turning violent.

Committee chairman Tom Burch, D-Louisville, said the bill would create a solid foundation to enhance social workers' safety. He said it would be followed with more action in 2008, when lawmakers will pass a new two-year state budget.

"If it takes nine months to build a successful program for social workers ... shouldn't we do it right to start with, rather than jump in," he said.

Burch said the committee was sympathetic to the concerns of social workers, but said there's an unwillingness among lawmakers to reopen the budget this year.

Rep. Jimmie Lee, D-Elizabethtown, said he was disappointed that the committee didn't commit state funds to begin beefing up the ranks of social workers.

"It is so frustrating to know that we're going to go another 14 months, and we're not going to provide you any relief," he said. "You have my apologies."

We cannot play politics with social workers' lives

'Boni Bill' spurs Capitol barb-trading
Fletcher, Richards tangle over social worker safety funding
Brammer, Jack. Lexington Herald-Leader, Feb. 20, 2007, pg. C1.

FRANKFORT -- Gov. Ernie Fletcher sent a letter yesterday to House Speaker Jody Richards, expressing disappointment that a House committee last week did not fund a bill to improve the safety of social workers.

Both men, who are running for governor this year, accused each other of playing politics with an issue sparked by the murder of a social worker on the job.

"We cannot play politics with these workers' lives," said Fletcher, a Republican.

"This is a problem that has gotten significantly worse under the governor's watch," Richards, D-Bowling Green, countered in a statement. "As recently as his State of the Commonwealth address, he boasted about cutting the size of government by 2,000 positions, but there's a human cost to those cuts."

During Fletcher's term, more than 580 positions in the Department for Community Based Services have been lost, Richards said.

"And during the 2006-2008 fiscal year, he rejected a request to restore $4.5 million funding for nearly 80 social workers. And his budget vetoes last year further compounded the problems faced by this agency. He's had ample opportunity to make meaningful improvements to this cabinet, and he chose not to.

"Now he's seeking to gain political footing with an issue that affects the most vulnerable Kentuckians -- the abused elderly, disabled and children."

Richards said the House has been "met with resistance and had trouble getting accurate facts from the administration. Since the governor is stubbornly refusing to follow the directives of the General Assembly and find $2.5 million out of a $4 billion budget to fund these emergency measures, we will be meeting to discuss ways to satisfactorily resolve the issue."

Fletcher also sent his letter to all Department for Community Based Services employees.

Fletcher noted in his letter that state social service aide Boni Frederick was murdered in Henderson last October while transporting a small child for a visit with his biological mother. The death prompted social workers to demand more help and safety measures.

Fletcher said social workers, Cabinet leadership and lawmakers drafted what is known as the "Boni Bill." It recommended hiring 300 more social workers, identifying safe visitation sites, creating safe office space for social workers, providing two-way radios with panic buttons and initiating a program to provide indigent mothers with mentors, at a cost of $20 million.

Fletcher said the money was available from a $401 million surplus.

The legislation the House Health and Welfare Committee approved "drastically departed from our bipartisan effort," Fletcher said.

"No funding is no reform. This action will put off for months the obvious steps we need to take today to protect those on the front lines who are assisting Kentucky's most needy."

Terrell and Luttrell murdered Boni Frederick

Intent to seek death penalty filed in social worker's slaying
Lexington Herald-Leader, Feb. 17, 2007, pg. B4.

HENDERSON -- Prosecutors will seek the death penalty for two people accused of killing a social worker in Western Kentucky in a case that prompted proposed legislation to protect social workers.

Henderson County Commonwealth's Attorney Bill Markwell filed a notice of intent this week to try the cases against 33-year-old Renee Terrell and Christopher Luttrell, 23, both of Henderson, as capital cases. A Henderson County grand jury charged the couple with murder, kidnapping, first-degree robbery and theft over $300."We have reviewed the evidence in its entirety. We believe the conduct of the defendants of murder and robbery raises (the case) to the level where the jury should consider sentences more serious than life in prison," Markwell told The (Henderson) Gleaner on Thursday.

Terrell and Luttrell are accused in the Oct. 16 killing of Boni Frederick, 67, and in the kidnapping of Terrell's infant son. Police searched for the three, who were found taking shelter in a trailer near Godfrey, Ill., about 30 miles north of St. Louis.

Authorities said Terrell and Luttrell beat and stabbed Frederick during a scheduled visit that Frederick was facilitating between Terrell and the infant at Terrell's residence in Henderson. The state has custody of the child.

The couple are accused of stealing jewelry from Frederick's body and taking her car to leave the area.

First-degree robbery is considered an aggravating circumstance that makes the case eligible for the death penalty.

The 'gutting' of the Boni Bill

Fletcher, others blast changes in social worker bill
Most efforts to boost safety were removed
Yetter, Deborah. Louisville Courier-Journal, Feb. 17, 2007, pg. B1.

FRANKFORT, Ky. — The daughter of a slain Western Kentucky social service aide said yesterday that she is outraged a bill named after her mother has been stripped of most provisions aimed at improving social worker safety.

"I feel like they used our family," said Sandy Travis of Webster County, whose mother, Boni Frederick, was murdered on the job last Oct. 16. "I think it's a crying shame. It was just like a political commercial."

Gov. Ernie Fletcher sharply criticized House Democratic leaders yesterday for "gutting" House Bill 362, named the "Boni Frederick Bill."

"It took away everything that's important for the safety of social workers and the children they serve," a visibly angry Fletcher said in an interview. "I think this is just a bad message to send to the folks out there on the front line."

State social workers also said they were shocked Thursday when the House Health and Welfare Committee suddenly produced and approved a new version of the bill.

"We were blown away; we were just speechless," said Jefferson County social worker Patricia Pregliasco.

Frederick's death prompted an outpouring of complaints from social workers statewide about the dangers of the job and the need for more staff and better safety measures.

House Speaker Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green, defended the changes, saying the House wants more time to study the problems of the state's child welfare system.

"We're trying to fix it," Richards said yesterday. "The taxpayers don't want us putting money in a system that's broken."

The new version strips out about $20million in improvements — including hiring another 300 frontline workers to handle child abuse and neglect cases — and calls for further study.

Pregliasco yesterday described the new version as "an empty bill."

"We're just not important — that's the message we got," she said. "We're not important and the vulnerable children of Kentucky aren't important."

Fletcher singled out Richards for his harshest criticism. Fletcher, a Republican, is seeking re-election and Richards is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor.

Richards said House leaders decided to revise the bill "to make sure we are spending the money wisely," a claim Fletcher derided.

"He's never had a problem spending money before," Fletcher said. "It's amazing this year he seems to have a spending concern, especially on problems that are bipartisan and urgent in nature."

Fletcher said the money is available from the state's projected $401million surplus for this biennium.

Officials with the Cabinet for Health and Family Services worked with lawmakers from both parties and a task force to develop the original bill and said the matter doesn't need more study.

"We've already done the research," said Mark Birdwhistell, the cabinet's secretary. "It's now time for action."

In addition to money to hire more workers, the original bill called for funds to create secure visitation centers for parents separated from their children and to purchase emergency communications equipment for social workers.

Travis had argued for the visitation centers — no longer in the bill — saying that might have saved her mother's life.

Frederick, 67, was beaten and stabbed when she took a baby for a final home visit in Henderson with his mother, who was about to lose permanent custody. The mother and her boyfriend have been charged with murder.

"What it looks like now, if this bill goes through, there's not going to be nothing left of it," Travis said yesterday.

Birdwhistell said he got no details of the changes in the bill until the new version was handed out at the meeting.

"I was just stunned," he said. "It basically took out all the core provisions we've all talked about and bought into."

Birdwhistell said he also was baffled by language in the new bill authorizing the cabinet to use up to $2.5bmillion from its existing budget to pay for "emergency safety needs of front-line staff."

His cabinet would have to take the money from other services it provides to the poor, elderly and disabled, he said.

Even though no committee members voted against the bill, some weren't happy, including Rep. Jimmie Lee, D-Elizabethtown, who has argued for several years that the state social service system is acutely underfunded and understaffed.

The bill directs a task force to study the matter and report to lawmakers before the 2008 session. "I'm of the view that we can't afford to wait to put some of those positions back on the street," Lee said yesterday.

Lee and Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, the bill's primary sponsor, said they believe there's still a chance to restore funds for the bill. That could happen at the last minute if it winds up in a conference committee to resolve differences between House and Senate versions.

"I think both sides will come up with something," Burch said.

Fletcher said he has asked House leaders to reconsider their actions.

No funding for social workers means that Boni Bill has no teeth

House panel OKs Boni Bill
Measure grants no money for hiring of more social workers
Vos, Sarah. Lexington Herald-Leader, Feb. 16, 2007, pg. C1.

FRANKFORT -- A House committee yesterday unanimously approved the Boni Bill, which addresses the safety of social workers. But the bill that passed did not have any new funding attached to it -- disappointing committee members, the secretary for the Cabinet of Health and Family Services and social workers.

Health and Welfare Committee Chairman Tom Burch, D-Louisville, said the Cabinet could find money within its budget to begin addressing problems and that the bill was a good start. The bill does not provide additional funding, but it does allow the cabinet to shift funds from other areas within the cabinet."It meets all the needs that we have addressed to protect the social workers," Burch said.

That wasn't enough for Charles Wells, executive director of the Kentucky Association of State Employees.

"It has everything that we've been asking for, yes," Wells told the committee. "But it's pretty much useless if we don't fund it."

Boni Frederick, for whom the bill is named, was slain in October while supervising a visit between a toddler and his biological mother. The bill as passed gives social workers access to criminal background checks, creates a way to track incidents with clients and forms a task-force to examine staffing.

Patricia Pregliasco, a social worker from Jefferson County who came to the hearing, said that the situation was desperate. The state needs more social workers, she said, adding that they are overstaffed, undersupervised and that social workers had too high a caseload.

"It's hard to make the right decisions when we have all of that over our heads," she said.

Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher has asked for more than $18 million to allow the cabinet to hire more than 300 social workers and staff, open visitation centers for foster children and their biological parents and provide better safety measures.

Number of foster children rising, while number of foster parents remains the same

More open their homes, hearts
Kreimer, Peggy. Kentucky Post, Feb. 17, 2007, pg. A1.

The case of Marcus Fiesel, the 3-year-old autistic boy who died in a southern Ohio foster home last year, has increased awareness of the need for good foster homes in the region, and in Northern Kentucky has spurred an increase in families training to take in such children.

In Northern Kentucky, foster care inquiries jumped 26 percent in the weeks after Marcus' foster parents were arrested and charged in his death.

Several families who are completing training now said the tragedy prompted them to take action, said Debbie Kallmeyer, who oversees foster care recruitment for the state in eight Northern Kentucky counties.

There was a surge in inquiries in Hamilton County, too, said Brian Gregg, spokesman for the county's Jobs and Family Services department, but none of those families took the next step to become foster parents.

Marcus' case made headlines not only locally but nationally as a stunning story unfolded of murder and duplicity to try to cover up the crime.

His foster mother, Liz Carroll, went on trial this week on murder and other charges. She sparked a search that eventually mobilized hundreds of volunteers in and around Juilfs Park in Anderson Township, Ohio, in August in response to Carroll's claim that Marcus had gone missing after she fainted during an outing with him and her other children.

Police later said the boy actually had died more than a week earlier, after Carroll and her husband, David, left him bound in a blanket and packing tape and closed up in a closet in their Clermont County home while they attended a family reunion for two days in Northern Kentucky.

David Carroll is scheduled to go on trial next month on the same charges his wife faces, plus gross abuse of a corpse, for allegedly burning the boy's body.

The Carrolls had been approved as foster parents by Lifeway for Youth, an agency that contracted with the state of Ohio to provide foster care.

Lifeway has since lost its Ohio license and transferred its Ohio holdings to another foster care agency.

Private agencies that do background checks and provide ongoing inspections, monitoring and support for foster families augment state foster care programs in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.

A total of 771 children from Hamilton County are in foster care, with 324 children in 285 foster homes that are part of the Ohio state system in Hamilton County and another 447 children in a network of private foster homes.

In the eight Northern Kentucky counties, 435 children are in private or state foster homes. About 400 more are in large residential programs and institutions.

"We have some children who would be able to move from those residential settings, but we don't have the (foster) homes for them," said Kallmeyer.

"The greatest need is for people willing to parent teenagers and sibling groups."

Hamilton County is attacking that need with a new parent recruitment commercial it's launching on local television stations and cable programs next month, putting faces and voices to the child's side of foster care.

The fast-paced spot uses young actors from the School for Creative and Performing Arts in Cincinnati to voice the questions and worries of foster children.

"What's going to happen to me?"
"Who's going to be there for my graduation?"
"Are you listening?"
"Can you hear me?

The commercial focuses on the concerns of teens who have no safe home, no safe family, said John Cummings, acting manager of foster care and adoption recruitment for Hamilton County.

High school years can be difficult for anyone, but teens who have no family end up terribly alone, feeling no one cares what happens to them, and facing a future that is uncertain and frightening.

Most of those youths wouldn't be in foster care if they hadn't been abused or neglected by their natural families.

Their sense of isolation and desolation can be especially acute the closer they get to 18, when children generally "age out" of the foster system and end up truly alone in the world.

When most typical kids reach 18, their families are still there for them, Cummings said. They have someplace to come back to. They have someplace they belong. They have roots.

Joel Griffith, service region administrator for the Northern Kentucky Region of the Kentucky Cabinet for Families and Children, said teens who grow up in group residences have a hard time forging their own families because they haven't experienced a healthy family.

"Every adult needs one person in his life who will love him unconditionally, someone who he knows he can go to," he said.

He said children may get too old for foster care, but they never outgrow the need for a family.

"When these kids are 18 years old, where are they going to go at Christmas? Where are they going to go at Thanksgiving? Everybody needs a sense of family,"
Griffith said.

The commercial focuses on teens, but the need for foster homes covers all age groups.

Foster homes don't have to be two-parent homes, and foster parents do not have to be young or wealthy, said Gregg.

They must be at least 21, pass a physical and a background check, and complete training. Beyond that, their key requirements are emotional.

"We need someone who is going to be a loving family, who will care for that child and do what is necessary to assure that child is in a safe, healthy situation," Gregg said.

Foster parents can set their own limits on the type of children they will care for.

"Some people don't want infants or don't want teenagers," he said. "Others only want infants or older children."

Some foster homes only care for children for a few nights, usually sheltering them immediately after they have been removed from their homes and until they get more permanent placement.

Most children in foster care have been removed from their homes because of abuse or neglect. Some leave with only the clothing they are wearing.

"These children have special needs. They may have behavioral problems, emotional problems," said Gregg.

And many have physical problems.

Most of the children in foster care are school age, and many are sibling groups.

"Wherever possible, we try to keep siblings together. But it's very hard to place three or four children in the same home," Gregg said.

Foster parents sometimes end up adopting children in their care, but that's not the goal. Foster care is a safe haven on the way to permanent placement, either with parents or relatives or an adoptive family.

While children are in foster care, social workers usually are working to stabilize the natural family.

"We are obligated to try to reunite them with their parents. If the parents are drug addicted, we try to get them off drugs. We work with them to find jobs and have a stable home. If that does not seem possible, we try to find a placement for the children; often that is a relative. If that is not possible, they'll spend time in foster care until they find an adoptive parent," Gregg said.

But some children never find that permanent home.

The number of foster parents remains fairly static but the number of children needing foster homes is growing, said Gregg.

"You can't leave a child in a dangerous situation just because you don't have enough foster parents," he said.

When a child is rescued from abuse or neglect, "we find a family," Gregg said.

The goal is to keep the child close to home, but Gregg has placed children in foster homes across Ohio, often in homes that already have one or two foster children.

"It's getting tougher and tougher to find homes," he said.

The surge in inquiries after Marcus' death was heartening, he said. "I'm not faulting people for not following through. They took the first step. They got information.

"It's a heck of a commitment," he said.

"Being a foster parent is a tough job. You have to be available at all hours. You have to let people into your home for inspections, to check on the child. You have to be available to take the child to medical appointments, to soccer, to any kind of therapy the child might need."

The responsibilities can be daunting, but so are the children's needs,
he said.

"We have some wonderful foster parents. They go through a lot and you really can't get upset about people who end up deciding they can't do that. It's a full-time job, taking care of someone else's child and making sure they have all the services they need.

"It's a blessing that we have so many who do it," he said. "But we sure need more."

Foster Parent information
* Northern Kentucky: (859) 292-6632 or
* Hamilton County: (513) 632-6366 or
* Finances: Foster families receive compensation for caring for foster children based on the child's needs, medical condition and behavior.
* Support Services: Foster parents and children can get ongoing support services including counseling, training, mentors, and often programs for child care and respite care.

* Must be be 21.
* Pass physical and background checks.
* Pass home inspection and allow regular inspection visits.
* Participate in on-going training.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Parent education provision is cut from the bill

General assembly: Foster-care adoption bill changed
Parental-education provision cut
Honeycutt-Spears, Valarie. Lexington Herald-Leader, Feb. 19, 2007.

FRANKFORT - Many Kentucky parents find out too late that once their child is in foster care, an adoption by strangers can be imminent.

So there's been a lot of attention on one facet of a bill designed to help those parents: Judges were going to be required to tell biological parents orally and in writing that an adoption would be in the works within months if parents failed do everything social workers asked.

But the bill's sponsor quietly initiated cutting the provision last week, minutes after Cabinet for Health and Family Services Secretary Mark D. Birdwhistell described it to a state Senate committee as being necessary and key to protecting the rights of parents and children.

Child advocate Terry Brooks said he was "disappointed" to see the parent-education provision cut from the bill, especially since judges themselves suggested it. Brooks said that without a law that requires all judges to educate biological parents, there's no assurance that a judge will tell a family that they are on the verge of losing their child forever.

"The changes to the bill introduce a judicial lottery," Brooks said, "What happens to a child will depend upon what judge they get."

Lawmakers and attorneys suggested last week that the bill needs other improvements. The legislation doesn't give grandparents or extended relatives priority over strangers. And instead of increasing fees for court-appointed attorneys so they can do a better job for parents, some court-appointed attorneys fear that language in the bill actually has the effect of reducing fees.

However, state Sen. Ernesto Scorsone, D-Lexington, filed an amendment Friday that would allow judges to set fees for court-appointed attorneys.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Julie Denton, R-Louisville, said Friday that the language mandating judges to educate parents orally and in writing was cut at the urging of the Administrative Office of the Courts, the division of state government that oversees judges and courts.

Denton, AOC official Patrick Yewell and Brooks, who is executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, all served together on the cabinet's blue-ribbon panel on adoption that drafted the legislation.

But Yewell, who requested the change in the bill, said he didn't protest the parent-education component earlier because he didn't know it would be in the bill until the day it was introduced. At that point, Denton said, AOC officials grew concerned that the legislative branch needed to be mindful of separation of powers in what lawmakers require of judges.

The blue-ribbon panel, charged with proposing improved laws, spent the last few months hearing from judges, attorneys, social workers and parents -- all of whom said the parent-education requirement was essential because parents aren't consistently told upfront that they are in danger of losing their child permanently.

Denton said she went along with the cut because she wanted to save the bill, which she thinks does many other good things for biological parents. In its current form, the legislation allows indigent parents to have an attorney for their first appearance in court, and gives them a few more days to prepare for court.

And Denton said she thought the intent of the bill had been preserved because it includes a new provision that allows Kentucky's chief justice to establish administrative rules regarding the rights of all parties involved in the cases.

Yewell said he couldn't say with certainty that the administrative procedures would do the same job as a law requiring judges to educate parents. But, he said, "I believe it will."

Cabinet officials who had heralded the concept of judges educating parents say they did not fight the cut because AOC officials told them it would be more efficient for the Kentucky chief justice to set rules for child protection and permanency.

The full Senate is scheduled to vote on the bill Tuesday.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Neighbors complain about (scapegoat?) the behavior of foster care alumni

Youth home stirs criticism:
Home of the Innocents runs Deer Park site
Elson, Martha. Louisville Courier-Journal, Feb. 14, 2007, pg. A1.

The Home of the Innocents has taken steps to improve communication and be more accessible to neighbors in response to complaints about a transitional apartment building it operates on Rutherford Avenue.

Most of the complaints are about noise and trash, said Art Cestaro, president of the Deer Park Neighborhood Association. His group met last week to discuss the situation, after some residents spoke about it at the group's Jan. 11 meeting.

The four-plex began operating about 15 years ago as a residence for unmarried teenage girls with children. Some neighbors expressed concern at the time.

Over the years the building has become a transitional residence for males and females 18 to 20 who have been in state foster care. They must be in school, have a job or both. They can live there up to two years.

Following last week's meeting, neighborhood resident Charles Schanie said there have been problems with loud parties and music, foul language, trash in the streets and yards, and fights.

Schanie said he and his wife, Connie, support the mission of the Home of the Innocents but the residents need better supervision.

"You don't expect that sort of thing in a middle-class neighborhood," he said. "They need to control what goes on inside that building."

"We will redouble our efforts to be good neighbors," Gordon Brown, the home's executive director, said after the meeting. "I think there have been some incidents we would not have approved of.... We respect everyone's rights to have a peaceful existence."

He said the residents should not be a threat to anyone and described them as "kids facing adulthood pretty much on their own." Home of the Innocents staff members pick up trash, he said.

Several Home of the Innocents representatives redistributed phone and beeper numbers to neighborhood residents at last week's Deer Park meeting, and the home plans to resume sending a representative to monthly association meetings.

"When problems occur, they can be brought to people's attention quickly," Cestaro said. "If we talk, I think we can stay on top of everything. People have a right to be comfortable in their houses."

The Home of the Innocents, headquartered at 1100 E. Market St., is a 127-year-old organization that cares for abused, neglected and medically fragile children. It also offers foster care and other programs for children and older youth.

Another controversy has arisen recently over Brooklawn Family & Children's Services plan to move up to eight boys ages 16 to 18 to a home that the residential center for emotionally disturbed youth bought as a transitional residence on Schuff Lane, off Newburg Road.

Some residents have objected on the grounds that it's a dormitory and is not appropriate in the neighborhood.

Brown emphasized that the Home of the Innocents' youths are living in apartments and said the operation is no different from other transitional residences that operate in the community, including three in Crescent Hill, where he lives.

Durenda Dolan, another neighbor, said she also has heard loud music and foul language but that it's "not much worse" than what goes on among other teenagers on the street. She doesn't think the behavior of the apartment residents is malicious and said people just tend to be afraid of "anything they don't know."

Up to six young adults can live in three of the apartments and a resident supervisor lives in the fourth, Brown said. Four employees also work at an office in the building.

The Home of the Innocents bought the building for $149,000 in 1991, according to county records.

Brown said the apartment building has security cameras that can be viewed in the resident supervisor's apartment, and a Home of the Innocents security officer visits each night.

"We feel like we have good supervision," Brown said, adding, "We get blamed for every little thing that happens."

Brown said the Home of the Innocents has "never been able to validate most of the complaints" and that there have been no police runs to the home for any incidents related to errant behavior.

Metro Councilman Tom Owen said he had talked with the Schanies in the past and was pleased with the "open discussion of concerns" at last week's meeting.

Cestaro and Owen said a series of break-ins and a reported armed robbery of an apartment dweller across Bardstown Road before Christmas stirred up concerns and suspicions in the neighborhood. Charles Schanie said his garage was broken into three months ago and items were stolen.

Cestaro and Owen said police have found no connection between those incidents and the apartments.

Elementary school students create knapsacks for foster youth

Art club creates a gift to give foster kids a lift
Burnette, Darrel. Louisville Courier-Journal, Feb. 14, 2007, pg. G5.

When social worker Marjorie Shular takes children from their homes to place them in foster care, it's often in the middle of the night and the children are unable to take many possessions with them.

They're lucky if they have something to carry their stuff in, Shular said. They usually use giant garbage bags or paper grocery bags.

The Buckner Art Guild, an after-school program at Buckner Elementary School, wanted to help fix that.

So last month, the group of 25 students created knapsacks with encouraging messages for foster children.

"Maybe when they look at the bag, they'll be happy," said Ashley Selsor, a 10-year-old fourth-grader.

Ashley made a knapsack with a smiley face on the back and the slogan, "Be happy."

The art guild gave the bags to Shular, who works for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services. Shular said she will try to distribute the bags to foster children in Oldham and Shelby counties.

"These kids are really going to benefit from these gifts," she said.

The art guild meets once a week after school for six weeks. Projects include ceramic bowls, weaving baskets and papier-mâche.

Art teacher Rae Schooley said she wanted the students to understand the concept of giving and community service.

"I want them getting to think about how to benefit others with art, rather than being self-centered," she said.

"They have to have something nice to carry things around," said Ally Reinert, a 9-year-old third-grader. Ally painted a horse on her bag.

A parent volunteer sewed the bags. Students used acrylic paint to write messages of encouragement and draw things such as butterflies, smiley faces and baseballs.

Allie Houk, a 9-year-old fourth-grader, said she didn't mind giving away art to anonymous children because it was going to a good cause.

"It makes me feel good because I know that I've helped someone else," she said.

Bill could protect parents' rights -
Focus is on who gets children after removal
Honeycutt-Spears, Valarie. Lexington Herald-Leader, Feb. 9, 2007, pg. D1.

FRANKFORT -- After months of investigations and task force meetings, lawmakers introduced legislation yesterday that could provide more protections to Kentucky parents whose children have been removed by state social workers.

The legislation proposed yesterday includes provisions that could help parents in court by training judges and attorneys, and by providing parents with lawyers and more information at the earliest stages of their court case.

State Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, who heads the House Health and Welfare Committee that is likely to hear testimony on the legislation, said the proposals should go further. The legislation should require officials to try to keep children with their extended biological families, Burch said.
"Separating children from their biological roots is not in the best interest of the child," he said. - NOT ALWAYS

Burch said he will propose amending the legislation to require courts to look for relatives who could provide a good home before turning a child over to strangers in foster care. Officials in the Cabinet for Health and Family Services say they already have a policy that requires social workers to look to extended family members first, but Burch said workers don't routinely follow the policy.

He is filing legislation that would require training for judges on termination of parental rights and the child-removal process.

State Sen. Julie Denton, R-Louisville, is filing legislation in which court-appointed attorneys also would be required to attend specialized training.

Denton is also filing legislation that would allow indigent biological parents to have court-appointed attorneys represent them the first time they go to court after their children are removed. And it would require the court to tell parents in clear terms that they could lose their children permanently if they don't follow orders from courts and social workers.

Jennifer Jewell said her group was generally pleased at the proposed legislation. Jewell is the director of Women in Transition, an organization of biological parents.

But she said the law should require courts to find family members who could provide a good home, before finding a non-relative foster home.

She said the cabinet "just pays lip service" to its policy of trying to place children with extended relatives first.

Two of Kentucky's leading child-advocacy groups -- Kentucky Youth Advocates and the National Institute for Children Youth and Families -- issued a report in January 2006 that suggested state social workers were inappropriately removing children from their biological families to facilitate state adoptions.

In the year since, the Herald-Leader has reported on cases in which judges and prosecutors disagreed with social workers and sent foster children back to their families, and on cases in which the state placed children with strangers first instead of relatives.

Several weeks ago, the cabinet's inspector general issued a scathing report on social workers based in Hardin County, saying they had falsified documents, lied to the court, mocked biological parents, and favored adoption over reunification with family members. Some workers might face criminal prosecution.

The report was accompanied by recommendations to improve problems in the system all over the state. One suggestion involved opening to the public court hearings on child removals and terminations of parental rights.

Health and Family Services Secretary Mark D. Birdwhistell said the 2007 legislative session is a short one and only a few initiatives can be proposed at this point. The issue of opening family-court hearings needs more careful consideration, he said.

"I'm not sure we're ready to go there right now,"
Birdwhistell said.

But he said he anticipated several meetings being called in 2007 to discuss the possibility.

Because the legislation filed yesterday doesn't cover all the concerns raised by the inspector general's investigation, Birdwhistell said the cabinet's blue ribbon task force will continue to meet throughout the year. More laws would be proposed to the 2008 General Assembly, he said.

Protect social workers from the dangers they face in removing a child from an abusive home

Lawmakers: Take the danger out of social work
Alford, Roger. Kentucky Post, Feb. 8, 2007, pg. A14.

Reacting to the grisly murder of a Kentucky child welfare worker during a home visit, Gov. Ernie Fletcher and a bipartisan group of lawmakers are pushing a bill intended to take some of the risk out of what they say can be one of the nation's most dangerous jobs.

Boni Frederick was stabbed and beaten when she took a 10-month-old boy to his mother's house for a visit in Henderson in October. Her death focused attention on the risks social workers face in volatile situations and created a groundswell of support for what's being called the Boni Bill.

The legislation, introduced Wednesday, would give all state social workers two-way radios equipped with panic buttons. It also would require that supervised visits between birth parents and their abused or neglected children take place in neutral locations.

"When you get involved with removing children from a home, it gets very, very dangerous," said state Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, sponsor of the bill. "You don't know what your reaction would be if someone came in to take your child away."

If the bill passes, Kentucky would be the first state to enact a law to protect social workers in at least two years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The legislation will cost some $20 million to be fully implemented over the next two to three years, Burch said. The bill is scheduled to be debated in the House Health and Welfare Committee today. Burch, chairman of the committee, said it will be presented to the full House for a vote early next week.

It would add 375 new social workers to the 1,400 now on the state payroll, said Sen. Daniel Mongiardo, D-Hazard. The additional workers would make it easier to pair up employees who go into risky situations.

Burch said the neutral locations may include state welfare offices, local health departments, even churches. However, some lawmakers also want to open secure visitation centers across the state.

"It's scary knocking on someone's door and not knowing what's on the other side," said Liz Wade, a social worker from Glasgow.

Wade said efforts by Fletcher and lawmakers to pass protective legislation is appreciated by everyone who works on the front lines to protect children.

"This bill by no means answers all the needs ... but it is a foundation that we can build on," Burch said at a press conference at the Capitol.

Fletcher, a Republican, said the issue transcends politics and that he supports funding initiatives in the bill.

"I consider this an urgent need," Fletcher said.

Prosecutors contend that Renee Terrell, 33, and Christopher Luttrell, 23, killed Frederick at Terrell's home, stole Frederick's car and kidnapped Terrell's son. He was found safe and returned to foster care after a three-day manhunt.

Terrell and Luttrell have pleaded not guilty to charges of murder, kidnapping, robbery and theft.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Kentucky child welfare system has been broken for a long time

Editorial: Overhauling child welfare long overdue
Louisville Courier-Journal, Feb. 5, 2007, pg. A13.

State Rep. Jimmie Lee, D-Elizabethtown, is pushing for badly needed reforms to Kentucky's child welfare system, especially improved worker safety and the hiring of as many as 220 more social workers.

Rep. Lee intends to call his proposal the "Boni Bill" in honor of Boni Frederick, the social worker who was murdered in October when she took a baby to visit the mother whose rights were about to be terminated due to neglect."It's unfortunate that the impetus behind doing this is someone being killed," he said.

But even before Ms. Frederick's death, the failings of Kentucky's child-welfare system were well known.

Money is clearly a problem. Kentucky is a poor state, and social workers here on average handle more cases than is recommended. (WHAT ABOUT THE CURRENT BUDGET SURPLUS IN KY?)

But money isn't the only problem, argues Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, who favors a more nuanced approach to repairing the system than what Rep. Lee seems to have in mind.

"The real nuts and bolts of restructuring that organization needs to be done with a lot more research," he said.

So Rep. Wayne is calling for a "cultural audit" conducted by a blue ribbon panel to get at what he says are big problems in the system, including its 30 percent staff turnover rate and its difficulty recruiting staff.

In Rep. Wayne's scheme, the blue ribbon panel would work from April through October and would craft specific recommendations for the legislature to consider next year.

What's likely shaping up is a vigorous and overdue debate in Frankfort that should generate meaningful, long-lasting improvements to a system that has been broken for a long time.

To whatever degree possible, Kentucky needs a child welfare system that protects all the parties involved, but especially the children, who are in no position to help themselves.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Opening juvenile courts won't happen anytime soon

Child-services changes targeted
Safety measures, training stressed
Yetter, Deborah. Louisville Courier-Journal, Feb. 4, 2007, pg. K5.

An overhaul of the state's child protective system is a top priority for some lawmakers in the 2007 legislative session.

That includes improving safety for social workers and providing more training for judges and lawyers.

Social worker Lorenzo Bradley of Louisville said workers would appreciate any changes that could help them try to protect children from neglect and abuse and keep troubled families together.

"People want to do their jobs, " he said. "The satisfaction beats the hell out of the pay. "

Lawmakers say they hope to put $20 million to $22 million into improving the system that has been under fire from social workers and from the people they serve.

"We can't wait until 2008 to put some of this in place," said state Rep. Jimmie Lee, D-Elizabethtown, who is chairman of the House human services budget subcommittee.

The murder of a social-service aide in Western Kentucky last fall triggered current efforts to upgrade safety. Boni Frederick was beaten to death after taking a baby for a visit with his mother at the mother's Henderson home.

But other changes aimed at tightening accountability and upgrading services for families are prompted by complaints from parents and advocates that the system is unfair, arbitrary and discriminates against the poor.

A yearlong state investigation of the Hardin County social-service region after at least six years of complaints and two adverse reports by advocacy groups found widespread problems in the eight-county area.

It found that some social workers or supervisors lied in court about cases, falsified records and developed a culture "which thrived on the power of controlling certain families," according to the report of the inspector general for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

Health and Family Services Secretary Mark D. Birdwhistell and Tom Emberton Jr., undersecretary for social services, said they are working with legislators on the bill, which is expected to be filed the first week of the session. It will be called the "Boni Bill" after the slain worker and will include:

--Funds to hire up to 220 front-line social workers.

--A system of secure "visitation centers " around the state where parents could visit children removed because of abuse or neglect. The state has no such centers outside Jefferson and Fayette counties.

--Buying safety equipment for social workers, including radios with "panic buttons " to alert local law enforcement in case of emergency and Global Positioning System devices to track social workers in an emergency.

--Upgraded training and pay for lawyers appointed to represent poor families in court. Lawyers get only $500 per case now in family court, although such cases might last for years and take hundreds of hours.

Also, judges would be required to appoint a lawyer for poor parents at the onset of a case, when the court holds a hearing on whether to temporarily remove a child from a home. Current law requires the appointment only after such a hearing has been held, meaning parents could lose temporary custody without a lawyer to represent them.

Changing training requirements so that all judges who handle child protective cases must take training in that area available through the Administrative Office of the Courts. Such training is optional for judges as part of annual continuing-education requirements.

Jefferson Family Court Judge Patricia Walker FitzGerald, who has advised state officials on proposed changes involving the courts, said she would also recommend that the court appoint lawyers for poor parents who wish to appeal termination of their rights.

Lorie Cox, a Louisville single mother who researched and wrote her own appeal because she couldn't afford a lawyer, supports that idea.

"That would be great, " said Cox, who lost custody of three children last year and is waiting on the outcome of her appeal. "I wouldn't have been able to do it without God's help. I prayed and prayed every night while I was doing it. "

Some, including the cabinet's inspector general, support opening family court and the child protective system to the public to allow more oversight and to prevent abuses.

"The cloak of secrecy that currently dominates the proceedings ... 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.

FitzGerald and Jefferson County Family Court Judge Stephen George have testified in favor of open courtrooms before a state panel considering reforms to the system.

Some states open such proceedings, and FitzGerald said the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges overwhelmingly endorsed the measure at its national meeting in 2005.

"I did not hear a single judge whose jurisdiction has opened the court voice an objection, " FitzGerald said. "The people who opposed it are the people whose courts are not open and they worry about what might happen. "

But Birdwhistell said he doubts that would be included in any legislation this session. He said it could be controversial and delay other needed reforms.

"I think that's a laudable goal, " he said. "But I'm not sure we'll get to that in this session. "

Should courts err on the side of openness when it comes to juvenile cases?

Open hearings an issue in parental rights
Legislature to consider adoption changes
Honeycutt-Spears, Valarie and Beth Musgrave. Lexington Herald-Leader, Feb. 6, 2007, pg. B1.

Same day. Same argument.

Two different judges, two different answers.The legal argument Louisville lawyer John Helmers was pushing yesterday in Louisville Family Court was a prickly one. The courts, he argued, should open hearings concerning the termination of the parental rights of three of his clients to the public.

Those hearings and all hearings involving children in Kentucky -- from juvenile delinquency cases to abuse and neglect cases -- have always been closed.

Jefferson Family Court Judge Jerry Bowles ruled against Helmers yesterday, saying the issue on whether the courts should be open is one for the legislature to decide.

Just an hour and a half later, Family Court Judge Stephen George said he would take the issue under advisement and issue a ruling later, adding that the courts should err on the side of openness.

The difference in opinion could be a bellwether of what the legislature may face as it tackles reform of key areas of the state's adoption rules. The legislature, which begins its session today, is expected to receive a series of recommendations on changing the state's adoption laws after investigations and panels showed that in some cases biological parents' parental rights are terminated too quickly.

The Inspector General, in a stinging January report about problems with foster care adoptions and termination of parental rights, recommended that termination proceedings against parents be open. The report found that social workers in the Elizabethtown office lied in court, falsified documents, acted spitefully toward parents and focused on adoptions rather than unifying children with their parents. At a meeting of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services Blue Ribbon Panel on Adoption, tasked with investigating adoption procedures in Kentucky, some family court judges suggested opening abuse and neglect hearings.

It is too early to tell whether legislators will recommend opening the courts as part of a possible reform package.

State Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, chairman of the House health and welfare committee, said yesterday he didn't know if the proposal would be included in legislation. The bill, which could include a host of changes to adoption laws, has not yet been filed.

Sen. Julie Denton, R-Louisville, who is expected to sponsor the legislation, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Helmers, who is appointed by the state to represent parents in termination proceedings, said he decided to challenge the closing of termination proceedings because he thinks the statute allows for it. To make sure that the state is doing its job and not moving too quickly to terminate parental rights, the public should know what goes on in juvenile courts, Helmers said. "There are some great social workers out there," Helmers said. But there are some really, really bad ones, he added.

Thomas Mercer, a lawyer for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, urged George to rule against Helmers, arguing that the Unified Juvenile Code, which governs judicial proceedings, clearly states that all proceedings regarding juveniles should be closed to the public.

The cabinet, in blue ribbon panel hearings, has not taken an official stance on whether court cases involving minors should be public.

Helmers is proposing that parties who wish to attend a termination of parental rights hearing write the judge two days before the hearing. A judge can decide before the hearing how to deal with the rights of the children involved, Helmers said.

But Louise Welch, a lawyer appointed to represent the children of one of Helmers' clients, argued in court yesterday that opening the courts could damage the children, who are the victims in termination proceedings. Helmers said yesterday he's not sure if he will take the issue to the state Supreme Court. It will depend on George's ruling and what his clients want him to do.

Youth who have been sexually abused and act out are discriminated against

Readers forum: Soaring need requires more group homes for youths
Louisville Courier-Journal, Feb. 4, 2007, pg. H2.

We present some facts as part of the discussion about the proposed Brooklawn group home issue: Brooklawn's value to our community and its successes simply cannot be overstated.

Serving dependent children and youth, most of whom have emotional and behavior problems related to neglect, abandonment, physical or sexual abuse or other significant trauma, Brooklawn is an enviable human services success story for any community.

The course of treatment at Brooklawn typically takes about a year before a child is ready to be discharged.

Only youths who have successfully completed Brooklawn's campus-based treatment program will be considered for admission to the proposed group home, and almost every resident will be attending a public school or university before being considered for admission.

By state law, no youth who has committed a sex crime can be admitted into a group home or other facility with dependent, neglected or abused children.

Unfortunately, there has been a huge increase in the number of children in the state's foster care system over the last few years, overwhelming the supply of available foster homes statewide.

Thus, options for children completing treatment have been greatly reduced, and successful residents must stay at Brooklawn much longer than before.

This, in turn, prevents admission of children on the long waiting list. Sadly, for every child Brooklawn admits, it must turn away six!

Our community needs group homes. Our community needs programs like Brooklawn's that offer a proven method to help children and youth. Brooklawn helps our community, and our community needs to help Brooklawn.

Executive director, Kentucky Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
Louisville 40223

Bob McFadden, president of the Louisville Affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, also signed this letter.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Adding up to 220 social workers and providing safety equipment would help

Better safety sought for social workers
Bill would also boost numbers
Yetter, Deborah. Louisville Courier-Journal, Jan. 27, 2007, pg. A1.

Adding as many as 220 social workers, safety equipment such as radios with "panic buttons" and secure centers where parents can visit children in state custody are among major changes proposed for Kentucky's child welfare system in this year's legislative session.

The changes could cost as much as $20 million. Many were prompted by the murder last fall of a state social-service aide who was beaten to death after she took a baby to the mother's home for a court-ordered visit.

An upgrade of the state's overloaded and underfunded social-service system is overdue, said Rep. Jimmie Lee, D-Elizabethtown, chairman of the House human-services budget subcommittee.

"It's unfortunate that the impetus behind doing it is someone being killed," Lee said.

Lee said the source of the proposed $20 million in changes hasn't been specified, but it could come from extra state revenue anticipated this year.

The bill will be called the "Boni Bill" after Boni Frederick, the worker slain Oct. 16 in Henderson when she took the baby for a last visit with the mother, whose rights were being terminated for neglect. The baby's mother and her boyfriend have been charged with the murder.

A key goal is to get more social workers into the field — which the state tried to accomplish last year through reorganization. That hasn't worked, and Lee said hiring more workers is essential.

"It's imperative that we put more workers out there," he said.

Louisville social worker Lorenzo Bradley said he is excited to hear about the proposals — especially hiring more workers, which could reduce heavy caseloads of the state's roughly 2,000 front-line staff.

"I love the 200 more workers," he said. "They ought to let us know when they are going to propose the bill so we can be up there cheering and yelling."

Other changes likely to be included in the bill stem from revelations of internal problems in the state's system for investigating allegations of child abuse and neglect and removing children from birth parents' custody.

Parents have testified before a panel appointed last year by Mark Birdwhistell, secretary of the Health and Family Services Cabinet, that social workers are too quick to remove children from parents, the system is biased against the poor, and social workers are sometimes arbitrary and violate state policy.

Earlier this month, a state investigation found widespread problems in the cabinet's Hardin County social-service region, including instances where social workers lied, falsified records and mistreated parents and children.

Some cases involving state employees have been referred to a prosecutor for possible criminal charges, according to a report by the cabinet's office of inspector general. "I think the OIG report shows there was a lack of accountability," Birdwhistell said.

For that reason, Birdwhistell said, the cabinet will ask the legislature to authorize the panel he appointed to continue its review of alleged problems and provide oversight of the social-services system.

Mary Henderson, a Lexington woman who has testified several times in Frankfort about problems she encountered, said she hopes the proposed changes bring improvements.

"You've got rules and regulations in place," she said. "If you're not going to hold people accountable, it's pointless."

Tom Emberton Jr., the state's undersecretary for social services, said his office already is working on plans to tighten controls over regional offices and improve oversight.

While the inspector general's report focused on the eight-county Lincoln Trail region, Emberton said state officials plan to visit the other regions to determine whether similar problems have occurred.

He also said he will seek to reduce caseloads — now about 19 for each worker. National accreditation standards call for no more than 17 cases per worker. - WRONG: 15

As for safety, the state will seek to equip workers who go on home visits with radios that include a panic button alerting local law enforcement. Social workers have complained cell-phone service isn't available in many rural areas and they might not have time to call for help if attacked.

Emberton said the state also wants to provide workers with GPS — global positioning system — devices that could be used to track them if they are believed to be in danger.

Rep. Tom Burch, D-Buechel , chairman of the House Health and Welfare Committee, said he expects to file the Boni Bill in the House the week the session opens Feb. 6 and hold the first hearing soon after that.

State Sen. Daniel Mongiardo, D-Hazard, who also has been working on the proposal, said he believes lawmakers in both the House and Senate are prepared to put more money into social services.

"Everyone is aware that something needs to be done," he said.

Lee said he believes one provision is critical to worker safety: creating secure sites around the state where, if there's any risk of violence, parents can visit their children who are in state custody.

Frederick was taking the baby to his mother's home for a final visit because the state had moved to permanently sever her rights and place the baby for adoption. That's an example of a visit that should have been held in a secure setting, Lee said.

"That should never happen again — ever," Lee said.

In light of abuse, juvenile courts should be open to public scrutiny

Editorial: Open juvenile courts
Louisville Courier-Journal, Jan. 31, 2007, pg. A10.

The wisdom of letting the sun shine on Kentucky's closed juvenile court proceedings has been underscored by the Cabinet for Health and Family Services investigation of abuses by social workers in splitting up families.

Certain state employees' behavior was so out of line that they face possible criminal prosecution, and the cabinet's inspector general himself recommended that the cloak of secrecy under which they operated be lifted.

Government operates best when it's subject to public scrutiny, and the higher the stakes, the greater the scrutiny should be.

It's simply unconscionable that policies designed to protect children were regularly being violated by those charged with carrying them out. It's unconscionable that, largely hidden from public view, social workers must juggle so many cases that required home visits are missed or that they are too quick in some cases, too slow in others and too uninformed generally in deciding whether to remove children from their parents.

Kentucky's General Assembly can and should change the juvenile secrecy laws that allow such problems to breed.

The cabinet's inspector general concluded that some state workers "displayed a prevalent attitude of omnipotence in interactions with clients and community partners" and responded "aggressively to any perceived challenge to their actions" by biological parents, foster parents and staffers.

As Louisville attorney Jon Fleischaker, a First Amendment expert who has represented The Courier-Journal and the Kentucky Press Association, points out, it would be a mistake to believe that such behavior occurs only in the single office and during the single time period the investigation targeted

Rather, the inspector general's recommendations recognize the probability of systemic problems. They may be manifested in different ways, but underlying them all is the lack of public oversight.

Child welfare advocates who remain queasy about public scrutiny must recognize that the systemic changes they seek depend on public support, and public support depends on public knowledge.

It's past time for this state to join the more than 20 others that now allow full or partial access to juvenile proceedings. The sky hasn't fallen in any of them.

There are certain circumstances in which closed proceedings may be warranted, and judges could retain the ability to shield them if they find compelling reasons to do so.

But the presumption should be that they will be open, so that Kentuckians will know how their government is treating Kentucky children and families in their name.

Kentucky should "join the more than 20 others that now allow full or partial access to juvenile proceedings."

Stigma of being in foster care: Neighborhood residents reject group home

Readers' Forum: The debate continues:
A group home for Brooklawn in the neighborhood?
Louisville Courier-Journal, Jan. 28, 2007, pg. H2.

Better supervised than most

Regarding Jim King's recent behavior: Pandering rears its ugly head again.... I'm not sure what process Brooklawn went through, but, as someone who works in a similar residential setting, I wish to reassure the neighbors that this kind of establishment is nothing to be upset about.

The fact is that the children there will be better supervised than nearly all other teenagers in the area. These children will be required to work hard at improving themselves.

... Brooklawn is welcome to build a caring, safe home near me. I'm sure my neighborhood could use it.

Couldn't they all?

-LEAH PEZZAROSSI. Louisville 40217

'Downright frightening'

As a future neighbor of Brooklawn's home for troubled boys on Schuff Lane, safety is of the utmost concern for the majority of the homeowners in the area....

We need to know that these boys are being adequately supervised and that Brooklawn is doing everything in their power to ensure these boys won't make any detrimental mistakes.

Having one 15-year-old male in a house is sometimes difficult enough; the idea of a whole house of boys who have "completed one year of treatment" living in the yard adjacent to mine is downright frightening.

I'm trying to push my fears aside and trust that Brooklawn is taking the appropriate steps.... But it's been difficult when it's turned into such a bitter, ugly battle, which Brooklawn has taken equal part in. I'd appreciate it if Brooklawn's president would keep his word ... helping the area's homeowners find a sense of security.

-KRISTEN STAAB, Louisville 40205

Find foster parents

On Jan. 7, I wrote to Brooklawn CEO David Graves with an offer: Give me a seat on the board, quash the group home plan and I will work relentlessly to place each of the eight teens in a loving, secure foster or adoptive home. The offer still stands; here's the strategy.

... Hold monthly weekend rallies to bring prospective parents together with available children.... Plan a "Brooklathon" on a local TV station.... Advertise in AARP.... As an adoptive, retired mother of two sons, I know that these boys would benefit from the day-to-day attention and love that a retired adult can provide.

Let's do it together. We can find a better situation for these teens than a group house.

-ROBIN DILLOF BURNHAM, Louisville 40205

What's best for neighborhood

... It seems to us that King is simply trying to represent the interests of the people who live in the area.

It is unfortunate that this situation involves troubled kids, but the people who own homes in the area should have the right to voice their opinion through their councilman.... The focus should be on what is best for the neighborhood.

DENNIS FANNING, Louisville 40213

Stigma is more abuse

... These children had no say in where they were born, who raised them, and what happened to them. Through much hard work and effort, these children have completed treatment and learned that what happened to them was not their fault and they have as much worth and value as you and I have....

If one would spend the time getting to know and understand these kids, one would understand the complex beauty behind each one.

They are children with the potential to grow, prosper and do good things for this community, if only given the chance and the support.

However, when we continue to attach a stigma to these children and tell them they are okay as long as they don't live in our neighborhoods and that they are good, just not good enough to live here, we re-abuse them in ways that caretakers and the system have done throughout their lives.

-CINDY KAMER, CSW, Louisville 40223

Safety of boys

If CEO David Graves and the rest of Brooklawn are so concerned about having a dormitory close to the bus lines, why are they even considering the house on Schuff Lane? This residence is at least half a mile away from the nearest bus line. ...

Regardless of the fears expressed by residents of this area, the boys' safety has to be considered. It appears that Graves and Brooklawn have not done their research regarding the issue of traveling by foot each day to the bus stop.

SARA McKIERNAN, Louisville 40205

Social workers appear to taunt picketers

Child protection picketed
Protesters say cabinet unfair to families
Hannah, Jim. Cincinnati Enquirer, Jan. 27, 2007, pg. B1.

COVINGTON - Tammy Ross said she believes being poor caused her to lose her four children about five years ago.

A tearful Ross was among six people who picketed at noon on Friday across the street from the Cabinet for Families and Children.

"See how they act toward us because we don't have money?" Ross said while pointing at two women waving and smiling at her from a third-story window of the cabinet's office at Sixth Street and Madison Avenue.

The 42-year-old Covington resident said she felt as if the social workers who took her children away were mocking her.

"But that's OK," she later said. "I have God on my side today."

Ross vowed to show up next Friday with a permit from the city to hold a rally after briefly speaking with Mayor Butch Callery, who spotted the group while walking down the street.

Joel Griffith, a regional manager for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, said he does not condone the employees waving and smiling from the windows.

"Were they being disrespectful? I do not know," he said several hours after the protesters dispersed. "Am I happy about what happened? No. Do I think it is appropriate? No. As a matter of fact, we have already gone to the whole building and said 'Folks, this isn't appropriate behavior.' "

Griffith said confidentiality rules prevented him from speaking about specific cases such as Ross', but he strives to treat everyone with equal respect.

"As an administrator for this agency, I'm keenly aware of the importance of treating clients with respect and listening to their voices," he said. "There are lots of things we do in the cabinet to try to make that happen."

For example, when a Northern Kentucky child is removed from a home, an independent arbitrator presides over part of the process. Griffith said he wants someone in the room to make sure everyone has an equal voice.

He said closing surveys with the families show that 80 percent or more do feel like their voices were heard.

"In the vast majority of times we do OK," Griffith said.

He said the cabinet did not learn of the planned protest until a social worker noticed a flier hanging in a courthouse earlier in the week.

He said the idea of a protest taking place in front of the office worried some employees of the cabinet, who are already shaken by the October killing of a state social worker in Henderson.

A woman and her boyfriend upset about losing a child allegedly killed the social worker during a family visit.

A security guard was hired to monitor the front door in anticipation of the protest. Griffith said someone had doused the office door with a flammable liquid about two weeks ago and threatening signs had been found at the cabinet's Newport office.

"There is a level of hypervigilance that we are trying to adjust to here," Griffith said.

The Covington picket appears to be part of a small but growing movement to reform the state's child-welfare system. About 75 people attended a public forum in Frankfort last week to give suggestions on how to improve the system.

The forum was prompted after the state inspector general found that some social workers in the cabinet's Hardin County region had lied in court, falsified records and mistreated families they were supervising.

Sandra Markley, 48, of Covington said any reforms would not repair the damage done to her family. She said her four grandchildren were removed from her daughter's home after her son-in-law was found guilty of abusing them.

"They said my daughter didn't protect her children," Markley said. "My daughter was severely beaten by her husband trying to protect them. The courts just didn't understand battered wives syndrome."