Monday, March 19, 2007

Kentucky foster care system cannot be relied upon to perform consistently or well

Commentary: Abuse and neglect - scrutinize, fix unreliable protection system
Lexington Herald-Leader, March 15, 2007, pg. A10.

On one hand, Kentuckians have seen a system that's overly eager to separate some babies and toddlers from their biological families.

Yet this same system failed to protect a battered 10-year-old despite reports of abuse and left her at the mercy of a father and stepmother who have a record of domestic violence.The tortured life and premature death of Michaela Watkins is one more symptom of a protective system that can't be relied on to perform consistently or well.

The past year has revealed deep problems in Kentucky's child-protection system, ranging from a rogue regional agency that gloated over its clients' misfortunes to dangerous working conditions, exemplified by the killing of social worker Boni Frederick as she supervised a parent-child visit.

In response to Frederick's death, the House and Senate have agreed to reallocate $6 million for safety and technology needs and the hiring of an additional 60 social workers.

But legislative negotiators have yet to agree on how to address what's broken in child-protection services.

Lawmakers should approve a House plan for an in-depth study of community-based services, including staffing needs and caseloads. It's been more than 10 years since Kentucky has taken a hard look at how to better protect children.

The panel should be independent, include front-line social workers, and -- to avoid political grandstanding -- be chaired by non-legislators.

Its work could produce support and a blueprint for Gov. Ernie Fletcher's more ambitious plan to spend $18 million and hire 300 additional social workers.

Meanwhile, the state must account for its failure to protect Michaela.

Yesterday, the child's father, who says she was injured falling down stairs, and her stepmother were charged with murder.

Herald-Leader reporters quickly found adults who knew the child was being abused, including some who had told authorities about the abuse. Police and social workers had visited the family.

Michaela had been withdrawn from the Clark County schools to be "home schooled" -- not the first time lax state laws have enabled home schooling to disguise child abuse.

Families in Kentucky are routinely denied custody of a child because of a domestic-violence record. Mothers can lose their children for not taking them from a home where there is violence. The presence of a stepparent is a known risk factor for abuse.

Yet, not only had Michaela been moved from foster care into her father's custody, the state also allowed the father to adopt her younger brother although there was no biological relationship.

Why the reports of abuse did not spur Michaela's removal and how the state entrusted two children to adults with records of violence are questions that demand accountability.

Unfortunately, Kentucky has no law requiring public release of records after a child dies from abuse or neglect. What the public learns about this tragedy will be at the discretion of the agency that was supposed to protect the victim.

The legislature should also fix that by mandating release of internal investigations by the child-protection agency after a child dies from abuse or neglect.


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