Friday, April 27, 2007

KY Summit on Children, Aug. 27-30 in Louisville

Foster care shifts to family
Relatives seen as best placements
Honeycutt-Spears, Valarie. Lexington Herald-Leader, April 25, 2007, pg. B1.

FRANKFORT -- Kentucky officials are changing child protection practices in response to widespread criticism of foster care adoptions, and Chief Justice Joseph Lambert is calling for improvements to the state's child welfare courts.

Under the new child protection practices, social workers will be directed to try harder to place children with extended family members before they turn to non-relative foster parents. Birth fathers and paternal relatives would particularly benefit from this change.

"We've identified these opportunities for improvement with the expectation that they will mean more equitable results for birth parents," Cabinet for Health and Family Services Secretary Mark Birdwhistell said yesterday at a meeting of a state Blue Ribbon Panel on Adoption.

Birth parents whose children are placed in foster care also will be told in clear terms by social workers and in writing that they stand to lose their children to adoption, Birdwhistell said.

The changes, which will take effect immediately, coincided with the announcement of an initiative by Lambert to improve Kentucky's courts and child welfare system.

The first-ever Kentucky Summit on Children will be held Aug. 27-30 in Louisville, Lambert said.

As many as 500 professionals will gather to offer recommendations to the Administrative Office of the Courts that don't necessarily require changes in the law.

"All corners of the state will be included in this broad-based discussion on how to provide the best care to our children," Lambert said.

Lambert said that the summit will study the issue of the fast-tracking of state adoptions versus children lingering in foster care and administrative procedures that would help prevent juvenile delinquency and child maltreatment.

At the summit, judges, lawyers, lawmakers, court and child welfare professionals will study truancy, court appointed attorneys, jailing juveniles and substance abuse.

Lambert will then host nine regional meetings in Kentucky on how to improve the court system's handling of children's issues. Lambert said he would approve the changes to the courts and child welfare system in June 2008.

The initiatives come at a time when Kentucky's child protection system is under intense scrutiny.

A federal law passed in the late 1990s directs social workers to find prospective adoptive parents for children soon after they are placed in foster care and allows courts to terminate parental rights more quickly than in the past.

Two Kentucky child advocacy groups released a report in January 2006 that raised the possibility that the cabinet was removing children inappropriately.

The cabinet formed the Blue Ribbon Panel on Adoption in August to study the problem.

Then, earlier this year, a cabinet inspector general's report said that some social workers in Elizabethtown broke laws as they unjustly removed children from their biological parents.

In preparation for the 2008 General Assembly, the task force yesterday decided to create work groups to study whether child protection records and courts should be open.

The work groups also will study whether court-appointed attorneys would receive their first increase in fees since the 1980s and whether state social workers are adhering to policy.

Chief Justice Lambert said he thought it was possible that Kentucky child protection courts and records, now closed to the public, could be opened but "that would require legislation."

Meanwhile, the Cabinet for Health and Family Services will create pamphlets to inform all parents whose children have been placed in foster care that they could lose their parental rights and their children be adopted.

The cabinet and Administrative Office of the Courts also are developing a checklist for judges to use to make sure that children and their birth parents get due process in court. Use of the checklist by judges will be voluntary, not mandated.

Legislation that would have required judges to educate birth parents failed in the 2007 General Assembly.

As a result, Birdwhistell said he has decided to go ahead and make as many changes as he could administratively, with social workers educating parents.


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