Kentucky must do a better job of protecting its children. Too many are succumbing to abuse, neglect and their parents’ drug addictions.
Gov. Matt Bevin has signaled that he is serious about doing better. In his state of the commonwealth address Wednesday, Bevin said he plans to appoint a “czar” to lead reform of a system that is responsible for 8,000 children in foster care and many thousands more who are at risk in their homes.
Bevin also vowed that a special session later this year will enact tax reform that increases state revenue. Money to hire and retain more case workers is essential to saving children and families. No amount of quality control can make up for the shortage of front-line staff and services.
We understand that Bevin’s top priority is stabilizing pension funds that threaten the state’s solvency. Just as Bevin wisely demanded tax reform that’s more than revenue neutral, lawmakers should raise enough new money to care for other pressing needs. Nothing is more pressing than protecting the children who are Kentucky’s future.
At the beginning of this century, about 1 in 5 Kentucky children lived in poverty; the state’s child poverty rate has risen to 1 in 4.
While abuse and neglect cases are up, the state “grossly” under-funds its child-protection agency, says an external review board that the legislature created to analyze child deaths and near deaths and make recommendations.
Cheves reports that some social workers are juggling 60 to 80 cases — an overload that violates all standards and guarantees burnout and high turnover. The agency is so strained that some infants born with prenatal substance abuse are sent home with no oversight, according to the review panel, when what they need are wrap-around services, case management and home visits. The panel’s top recommendation is to address the substance abuse epidemic followed by providing the funding needed by the Department of Community Based Services to do its job.
That agency’s involvement in a child’s life is no guarantee of safety, however. The child who was brought from Berea to the University of Kentucky emergency room near death a few days shy of her ninth birthday in 2014 was well known to the agency and to agencies in other states. Her father and his live-in girlfriend had beaten, starved and tortured her. But her case worker, who had a record of unpaid suspensions and reprimands for poor performance and is still employed by the agency, concluded there was no abuse, despite multiple red flags, including a decision to home school the child after public school personnel reported her injuries. A later tip that the child had a black eye went nowhere because it was filed under the wrong name. The father and girlfriend are in prison; the child has a new home.
Of 116 cases of abuse and neglect resulting in the death or grave injury of a child last year, 59 percent were potentially preventable, concluded the review panel, had an adult — social worker, educator, doctor, neighbor, judge — acted differently. A judge’s involvement made little difference. Fifty-seven percent of the cases the panel reviewed in 2016 had gone through criminal proceedings or confidential dependency, abuse and neglect hearings.
This system-wide failure illuminates the complexities of helping families beset by drugs, violence and poverty rooted in an economy that excludes too many Kentuckians from real opportunity. The challenges are huge.
Bevin, who also criticized deadbeat dads in his speech, seems genuinely to care. The proof will be in Kentucky’s next biennial budget to be enacted in 2018.