Friday, May 22, 2009

Young people deserve a voice regarding their placement

Judge takes teen from state's care; foster parents granted custody
Yetter, Deborah. Louisville Courier-Journal, May 11, 2009.

In an unusual rebuke to state child welfare workers, a Jefferson County family court judge has removed a teenage girl from their care and granted temporary custody to her foster parents.

Circuit Judge Stephen George last month took that step, over the objections of state workers, after the workers reneged on an agreement to let the 17-year-old remain in the Bullitt County foster home where she had been thriving, said the girl's lawyer, Christopher Harrell.

"I think it's atrocious," said Harrell, who said the state previously had agreed not to move the girl from the foster home. "

The girl is not being identified because she is a minor and has experienced abuse.

George's actions remove the state's authority over the teen.

Jim Grace, head of Kentucky's child protection services, said in an interview that he can't comment on the specifics of the case because of confidentiality laws. But he said that, in general, state social service officials try to return children to their family homes when it's in their best interest.

Yet while family court proceedings involving abused and neglected children by law are confidential, Grace acknowledged the judge's decision to transfer custody from the state to the foster parents "may be unusual." And he said state officials will investigate the matter and see if further action is warranted.

Growing outrage
The girl, Harrell and others involved in her case agreed to talk to a reporter about the case because, they said, they are outraged by how state workers handled it, starting with the decision earlier this year to try to send the teen back to the troubled home they removed her from last year.

The girl said she told her social worker she was afraid to return home and wanted to stay in her foster home, where she was happy, treated well and improving in school.

"She said that wasn't an option," the girl said in a recent interview at her lawyer's office. "It was kind of like her way or no way."

The girl contacted a reporter after reading a Courier-Journal story in January about a youth in Oldham County who said he was being forced out of foster care just a few months before his high school graduation.

She told the newspaper she was experiencing similar treatment and noted that the move would have disrupted her education. Once failing in school, she said she's now makes As and Bs, has made up a year's worth of missed school credits, has joined the ROTC, is on track to graduate on time and is considering college or the military.

And none of the problems at her family home, including fighting and physical violence, have been resolved, she said.

She said her goal was to stay in foster care through age 18, then seek independent living from the state, which would provide continued support and help pay for college. Her first social worker encouraged her to work toward that goal by making good grades and following the rules in her foster home.

But she said a different social worker assigned to her case last fall told her the state's goal was for her to return to her family home, from which she was removed in April 2008.

"I don't think that makes sense," the girl said in the interview.

Foster parents step in
Harrell, appointed as a guardian ad litem to represent the girl's interests, said the foster parents also are unhappy with the state's proposed actions. They consider the girl part of their family and have agreed to take temporary custody even though they lose foster care payments from the state.

That family has declined to comment, saying foster care officials have warned them not to speak publicly about the case because of confidentiality rules.

The girl said she believes her case is similar to that of Julian Tweedy, 18, of Oldham County, whose situation was profiled Jan. 23 in The Courier-Journal. In that case, too, the foster parents agreed to keep him at their own expense while the matter was pending.

After the newspaper report, the Cabinet for Health and Family Services reversed its decision and allowed Tweedy to remain in foster care.

Case spurs criticism
Children's advocates harshly criticized the state for its actions in that case, and advocates for the girl say some of the state's actions in her case defy explanation.

"They're supposed to be there to help and protect kids," said Lisa Butler, a child advocate with the Jefferson County juvenile public defender's office who is assisting in the girl's case. "The whole thing is so broken."

The girl said she was frustrated by her state social worker, who she said refused to listen to her and threatened her and her foster parents with contempt of court if they didn't follow her directions. (Only judges can hold people in contempt of court, Grace said.)

The girl said when she objected to returning home, the worker said, "Life's not fair," the same thing Tweedy said his worker told him. Records provided by their lawyers, show both teens had the same social worker, Jacki Schultz, and the same social service supervisor, Billy Jenkins, managing their cases.

Neither Jenkins nor Schultz could be reached for comment and Grace, their supervisor, said they would not be available for an interview because of state confidentiality rules.

Tweedy and the girl, in separate interviews, each said they tried to tell Schultz they encountered fighting and violence on their occasional visits to their family homes.

Tweedy said Schultz told him that because he had turned 18, he was an adult and should handle it. The girl said Schultz told her she needed to try harder to get along with her family.

The most recent meeting over the girl's fate devolved into a shouting match between Harrell and Jenkins, said Harrell, who attended the April 8 session along with his client, Schultz, Jenkins, Butler, the foster parents and the girl's parents.

At one point case, Jenkins became so upset the girl offered him her "squeeze bunny," a spongy toy a therapist gave her to squeeze when she found herself getting tense, she said, a detail confirmed by Harrell and Butler.

"I said, here, I think you need this," she said.

Told of that allegation, Grace said that while he couldn't speak about this case, "we would never want that to happen."

Girl's future
Despite the rancor, the parties eventually agreed the girl could remain in the Bullitt County foster home and finish school, Harrell said.

But when the parties got to court April 15, he said, Jenkins and Schultz announced they had changed their minds and the girl was to be transferred to a new foster home in Jefferson County, which would have forced her to change schools near the end of her junior year.

It was then that the judge ordered the girl removed from the state's custody, finding the state hadn't made reasonable efforts to ensure an appropriate outcome.

Harrell said it's a good temporary solution but doesn't resolve all the issues. For example, if the girl isn't in foster care through her 18th birthday, she can't get free tuition at a state university and she can't qualify for independent living assistance beyond age 18.

Although the judge ordered the girls' parents to pay child support to the foster parents, it's only about half the financial support the state pays for foster care. And the state immediately cut off the girl's Medicaid coverage, leaving the foster parents scrambling to find health insurance for her.


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