Sunday, May 20, 2007

No one listened to Tonya Thomas' concerns about foster children being in daily contact with sex offender

Sex offender 'roamed' in foster home
Judge chastises officials
Honeycutt-Spears, Valarie. Lexington Herald-Leader, May 1, 2007, pg. A1.

WILLIAMSBURG -- A judge says that Kentucky child protection officials were "reckless and negligent" for repeatedly placing children in a foster home where a known registered sex offender "freely roamed."

In an April 10 order, Whitley District Judge Daniel L. Ballou said the registered sex offender lived on the property of and adjacent to the Whitley County foster home, was in the foster home on a daily basis, "freely roamed the premises of the foster home and was not prohibited from having daily contact with foster children."

Ballou's order said the cabinet "knowingly placed Kentucky children in harm's way."

Ballou's order is the latest in a series of allegations from child advocates, judges, attorneys, frontline social workers and families involving the cabinet's placement of foster children. Some complaints allege that social workers, especially supervisors, make inappropriate decisions under the guise of federal laws that make it easier to remove children from their families.

In his order, Ballou said that in regard to the Whitley County case, he agreed with the late President Ronald Reagan who once quipped, "The most terrifying words in the English language are 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.'"

"However, in the present case," Ballou wrote, "the humor is lost in the potential danger this child was placed in due to the incompetence of the government."

Ballou ordered a teenage girl in foster care at the home returned to her mother. Other foster children were in the home, according to the order. The order did not speak to the status of those children, but the judge ordered the cabinet not to place any children in the foster home.

In response, the Cabinet for Health and Family Services "is reviewing the matter and shares some of Judge Ballou's concerns," Cabinet spokeswoman Vikki Franklin said. "We are in the process of determining whether appropriate actions were taken and whether additional training is necessary."

Ballou's order said the cabinet for Health and Family Services regional office in London was notified of the situation on or before May 2006 "but took no appropriate and necessary action to protect the children placed in their care." The judge's order does not name the sex offender.

Ballou's order said that one social worker, identified as Tonya Thomas, was "professional, diligent and conscientious" in notifying the court that the foster children were in daily contact with the sex offender. Ballou's order said that aside from the efforts of Steve Halstead, a former Cabinet regional office employee, "no immediate action" was taken by Thomas' supervisors in the regional office to protect the foster children.

At an April 4 hearing, the judge's order said, "testimony by Cabinet personnel was fraught with inconsistencies and exposed an irresponsible degree of indecisiveness on the part of Cabinet leadership as well as convenient bureaucratic memory lapses."

Ballou ordered the cabinet to provide three reports. One outlining complaints, reviews, income information and details about the foster home was due within 20 days. A second report detailing the safety of all children in state custody in Whitley and McCreary counties, where the judge also presides, was due within 30 days. A third report on allegations of other sex offenders living on the premises of foster homes in Whitley and McCreary counties was due within 20 days.

A 2006 report by child advocacy groups Kentucky Youth Advocates and the Louisville-based National Institute on Children Youth and Families cited examples of social workers at odds with regional supervisors who failed to protect children while trying to keep removal and adoption numbers high.

National Institute Executive Director David Richart said that Whitley and McCreary counties were "one of the pockets of danger" mentioned in the 2006 report called "The Other Kentucky Lottery."

"Like a broken record, the cabinet keeps saying it will conduct internal reviews" of problematic cases, " said Richart, "but sunshine is the best disinfectant, and that's why it's necessary for people outside the cabinet to be involved in the reviews."