Thursday, April 19, 2007

Reform failed because its recommendations were shot down

Officials must go back to work on reform
Task force, failed legislation at issue.
Honeycutt-Spears, Valarie. Lexington Herald-Leader, April 2, 2007, pg. A1.

FRANKFORT -- A few weeks from now, state child protection officials are likely to face some hard questions at a meeting of a task force convened last year to study the decisions social workers and courts make about removing Kentucky children from their parents.

Chief among them:

* How is the Cabinet for Health and Family Services going to stop state social workers from making arbitrary recommendations that can result in death and injury to some children while other children are unjustly removed from their biological families?

* And why did reform legislation, written by cabinet officials, fail to pass during the recently ended 2007 General Assembly session?

Some critics say the cabinet put together a bad bill and that the task force created by the cabinet was flawed at its inception because the panel was created and led by the very agency that is facing criticism for its decisions.

"I thought the legislation was poorly constructed and not well-thought out," said Jennifer Jewell, executive director of Women in Transition, an organization in Louisville and Lexington that helps mothers under investigation by social services.

"The task force was flawed," Jewell said, in part, because it did not include biological parents whose children had been removed.

Jewell and Lexington attorney Robin Cornette, who represents biological families in danger of losing their children, say that a group independent of the cabinet should be investigating the cabinet's problems. They say some members of the task force are connected to the cabinet in one way or another. Cornette, who testified in front of the task force, said that she and other professionals were given only 15 minutes to try to explain very complex laws and court procedures.

Cabinet Secretary Mark D. Birdwhistell, who was chairman of the task force, says that in the next year the cabinet is committed to fixing the inconsistencies that can lead to life-threatening and life-altering consequences for children.

He promised intense study of whether social workers are adhering to policies designed to protect both children and their biological families and on whether Kentucky should open child protection courts.

Birdwhistell said he expects the task force to also spend months studying the various issues involved in giving court-appointed attorneys their first fee increase in more than 20 years so that they can better represent parents and children.

"We've got to tackle transparency in courts" and try to make sure that parents get better representation from court-appointed attorneys," said Birdwhistell.

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.

Parents don't have to be physically or sexually abusive to lose their children forever, only to be found neglectful in some way.

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

Meanwhile, a cabinet inspector general's report found that some social workers in Elizabethtown broke laws as they unjustly removed children from their biological parents.

Birdwhistell convened the Blue Ribbon Task Force in August, saying that it would draft reforms for the 2007 General Assembly.

In retrospect, Birdwhistell says, it was in unrealistic to think that legislation could be drafted on such a complex issue in a few short months.

The proposed legislation was not drafted until late in the session and it was not given to task force members to review until the morning it was introduced. That prompted several members to complain that they had been left out of the bill drafting process.

The original legislation called for judges to alert biological parents that they could lose their children forever once they were in foster care, but that provision was cut at the urging of the Administrative Office of the Courts, which was uncomfortable with legislators making requirements of judges.

The legislation called for judges to appoint parents an attorney shortly after a child was taken away. But State Sen. Julie Denton, R-Louisville, said that provision caused the bill to die because lawmakers from small counties didn't think there were enough court-appointed attorneys available.

Although task force members had agreed that the fees for court-appointed attorneys should be increased for the first time since the 1980s, the bill actually reduced the fees. State Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, said he thought the bill died because so many court-appointed attorneys were against the provision that reduced fees for them.

But Cornette, the Lexington attorney, said she thought the legislation failed because the suggestions of advocates and professionals weren't included.

"The process wasn't thorough," Cornette said, "and it wasn't thoughtful."


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