Thursday, February 15, 2007

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.


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