Saturday, March 24, 2007

House is right, Senate is wrong

Visitation centers are tied up in impasse
Legislators still hoping to pass social work bill
Yetter, Deborah. Louisville Courier-Journal, March 19, 2007, pg. A1.

Supervised visits between parents and children follow a careful script at The Family Place in Louisville.

Mother and father arrive through separate entrances, and the parent bringing the child never sees the parent who is there for the visit.
Doors are locked with key cards, and an off-duty sheriff's deputy provides security.

"Anything anybody can do to create more centers like this is probably one of the most worthwhile things my tax money could be spent on," said Richard Muench, a Louisville father who brought his children to the non profit agency last week for a visit with their mother.

The failure of state legislators to approve a bill that could create a network of such visitation centers around the state, as part of an effort to improve safety for social workers and families, has outraged supporters.

But lawmakers say they are hopeful they can work out differences in the final two days of the legislative session, March 26 and 27, and pass a bill.

Muench said that c onflicts with his children's mother made it impossible to hold visits elsewhere, but "I don't have to worry about the Family Place. ... It has been a lifesaver - it really has."

Setting up visitation centers across the state was one goal of lawmakers backing House Bill 362.

But the measure - named "The Boni Frederick Bill" after a Western Kentucky social service aide slain on the job last year - was caught in the last-minute gridlock between the House and Senate and failed to gain approval on the last scheduled day to pass bills in the 2007 legislative session.

But lawmakers haven't given up hope on the bill.

"I hope we're able to sit down and come together," said Rep. Jimmie Lee, D-Elizabethtown, who is chairman of the House human services budget subcommittee.

Supporters of the bill, including Boni Frederick's daughter, Sandy Travis, are upset that it has stalled.

"I was very disgusted," said Travis, whose mother was fatally stabbed and beaten when she took an infant for a final home visit with the child's mother in Henderson. "If something (like that) happened in Frankfort, they'd have security that was out of this world."

Social workers - who complain they are short-staffed and overburdened by a rising caseload - also were frustrated by the legislature's inaction, said Tricia Mack, a Louisville social worker.

"We feel alone," she said.

Lee said he thinks lawmakers were tired and tempers simply got short as legislative action last Monday stretched to nearly midnight.

"I expect everyone's going to take a few days to cool down and step back and look at things," he said.

Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, said he is willing to work with the House to pass HB 362, although the House and Senate still have conflicts about what the final version should include.

He suggested that House members may better accept the Senate version "if they'll just calm down and start looking at it." - NO, BECAUSE IT SUCKS

Mark D. Birdwhistell, secretary of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, said he hopes to work with lawmakers from both chambers to get a bill through this session. Lawmakers had reserved the final two days to consider any legislation the governor might veto but say they probably will use them to try to pass legislation that is still pending.

"We want to get the bill passed," Birdwhistell said. "I'm very hopeful we'll be able to reach a consensus on the outstanding issues."

Among the issues to be resolved:
Funding. The House had proposed $4.8 million to hire more than 100 more social workers and social service aides and open 16 secure visitation centers around the state for parents to visit with children removed for abuse or neglect.

Gov. Ernie Fletcher and cabinet officials also had backed expanding the handful of small visitation centers that now operate in a few communities, including Louisville, with budgets largely dependent on grants or local funds.

The Senate is willing to spend up to $6 million but wants to use the money to hire about 60 workers and make local child welfare offices more secure, rather than open visitation centers.

Williams has said he doesn't believe private centers would be secure and described them as "untested." He said he would rather put funds into improving security at the offices and possibly creating visitation sites there.

Oversight. The House wants an outside task force to review Health and Family Services' child welfare system and make recommendations for changes to the legislature in 2008. The Senate wants to empanel a work group from staff within the cabinet to identify possible improvements.

Both sides say they feel strongly about what they want in the bill but will try to settle the differences when they meet next week.

"I'm still optimistic," said Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, sponsor of the bill and chairman of the House Health and Welfare Committee. "I think we'll come to an agreement."

If lawmakers do decide they want to expand visitation centers around the state, The Family Place - which has operated its center in Louisville for seven years - is ready to help with training and advice, said Pamela Helms, its president.

Proponents argue that such centers operate in many states to provide a secure and neutral place where families separated by violence, abuse or other conflict can visit under the supervision of trained workers.

At Family Place, clients are referred by the court. Children visit parents in one of several colorful rooms filled with comfortable furniture, books and toys - but trained workers are always nearby or in the room, if necessary.

The center has never had a serious incident, even though "the families we serve are those where there's a great risk for violence," Helms said.

Pat Dintamin, center director, said staff members defuse tensions by being polite and respectful to all parties and don't take sides in family disputes.

But Helms said adequate funding is scarce. "It seems so logical that these services are needed, but it's such a struggle to find funds," she said.

The center currently uses a federal grant to provide visits for children with families involved in domestic violence and recently got $50,000 from the state to expand family visits to children removed from homes because of abuse or neglect.

Helms, who worked as a state social worker and supervisor for 10 years, said it may be unrealistic to expect social workers to organize parental visits and hold them in a state office.

"The challenges state social workers have are so enormous, " she said. "Finding a time and place to have a supervised visit can be impossible. "


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