Child advocates are praising the General Assembly's passage of a handful of key bills aimed at making life better for Kentucky's vulnerable children.
"If you let your voice be heard, there's always somebody there to listen," said Jamie Cotton, a former foster child who pushed for a bill that gives foster children more time to decide whether they want to stay in state care until age 21.
Terry Brooks, executive director of the non-profit Kentucky Youth Advocates, said Monday that he was pinching himself because so many pieces of legislation that could improve the lives of children were approved this session.
"We think there were some really big wins for kids," Brooks said.
Some of the key victories cited by advocates include:
■ The House and Senate agreed to keep in the state budget an additional $21 million proposed by Gov. Steve Beshear to hire 300 more social workers, about 100 of whom will be assigned to beef up child protection.
■ Approval of House Bill 168, which prohibits superintendents from assigning teachers to alternative schools as punishment. Advocates say that too often, a school district's worst teachers are assigned to alternative schools.
■ Approval of House Concurrent Resolution 129, a measure that creates a juvenile justice task force charged with reforming Kentucky's juvenile criminal code.
■ Approval of Senate Bill 213, which requires state social workers to give foster children specific information and support when they are age 17½ . The bill also gives foster children extra time to decide whether they want to extend their time in the state system until age 21.
In 2011, 556 foster children between ages 18 and 21 extended their stay in foster care as a way to get help with housing, living expenses, health care and other services.
Cotton said in an interview Tuesday that social workers did not give her enough information about the requirements to stay in foster care.
Now 24, Cotton said she is working as a cashier to support her two children and hopes to soon enroll in college. Had she been given more information about the option to stay in foster care, Cotton said, she might have gotten an earlier start on her college career.
Currently, foster children have six months after their 18th birthdays to decide whether they want to extend their commitment to foster care. SB 213 gives the teens an additional six months — or until age 19 — to make the decision.
Former foster children such as Cotton who are members of a movement called True Up took the idea for the legislation to lawmakers and testified before legislative committees, said Gene Foster, the movement's executive director.
"Young people have told us what they need for support in order to be successful," Foster said. "It's the youth's message that the youth carried directly themselves."
Meanwhile, creation of the Unified Juvenile Code Task Force gives advocates hope that lawmakers will make more changes in the law to help children next year.
Under HCR 129, the task force could study a broad range of topics, including the feasibility of establishing an age of criminal responsibility that would limit the number of children ages 10 and younger who face complaints in court each year. Some children as young as five have faced criminal complaints in recent years.
The task force also could study whether to eliminate or modify the handling of status offenses, which involve runaways, truants and young people considered out of the control of adults.
State officials and advocates say too many status offenders end up in juvenile detention centers, and too many children younger than 10 are taken into court.
Under the resolution, the task force also can look at alternatives to incarceration, study establishing a means of protection and treatment for special needs children, and study an improved system of identifying and helping children exposed to domestic violence.
The task force will include several court officials and commissioners or directors of key agencies that work with juvenile offenders. The panel must submit a report to the Legislative Research Commission by Jan. 7, 2013.
Brooks, meanwhile, said it was important that Rep. John Tilley, the Democratic chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Tom Jensen, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, both backed the juvenile code task force.
"Bills that moved forward were created in a bipartisan way," Brooks said. "Bills that ran into trouble tended to be partisan."
Two bills that appear to be dead this legislative session would have provided more oversight for the state's child-protection system.
Provisions of House Bill 200, which created an external review panel of experts to examine deaths of children who died of abuse and neglect, were attached to Senate Bill 126 in the waning days of the legislative session. That bill, however, was sent back to the Senate Appropriations and Revenue Committee on Friday, which means it probably will not be considered when lawmakers return to Frankfort for the final day of the session on April 12.
House Bill 239 would have created a pilot program to open up the juvenile courts, which are closed to the public. That bill was never heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee.