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. "


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