Some obvious pitfalls await Gov. Matt Bevin’s new czar, but what’s most disappointing is that his assignment seems to be narrowly focused on foster care and adoption, rather than also on how to help Kentucky children grow and thrive in their own families.
We hope we’re wrong about the narrow focus. Kentucky Youth Advocates chief Terry Brooks keeps optimistically using the term “child welfare czar.” But what Bevin and his new appointee Daniel Dumas, an administrator at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, are saying suggests that their overriding concern is speeding up adoptions.
Bevin also has vowed to “transform Kentucky into the gold standard for adoption and foster care systems,” which sounds great. But never forget that by the time children are in foster care they already have been traumatized by adverse events that research shows have lifelong negative consequences for their well-being. Helping families avoid and minimize these traumas should be the first priority.
Granted, what we’re calling for is a tall order. It was a tall order even before the opioid epidemic started taking down Kentucky families. But the state must do a better job of giving kids a solid start in life. A narrow focus on foster care and adoption can’t accomplish that larger goal or create the continuum of support that’s needed.
For example, the vast majority of children who die or are seriously injured by abuse and neglect in Kentucky are 4 or younger. But programs for families and children are so understaffed and strained that even some infants born with prenatal substance abuse are being sent home with no oversight, when what they need are wrap-around services, case management and home visits.
Reducing the need for foster care and adoption through prevention is not only more humane it’s also more cost effective by avoiding medical and countless other costs down the road.
As for the pitfalls, Dumas brings to his new task no experience with child welfare systems other than his personal experience adopting two children. He’s being asked to “transform” a complex and opaque bureaucracy overseen and staffed by people who know a lot more about it than he does. Maybe his outsider status will be an asset but his learning curve will be steep. And his salary — $240,000 plus bonuses — will be viewed as an affront to those on the front lines of child protection who are paid a pittance for doing a hard and dangerous job.
Dumas’ affiliation with a religious institution that is perceived as virulently anti-LGBT will inevitably raise concerns about his possible biases against foster and adoptive parents who are gay and also children who are gay.
Finally, Bevin’s plan to reward Dumas with financial bonuses up to 20 percent of his base pay for meeting certain goals will set off alarms for Kentuckians who remember what happened when the federal government offered states bonuses for increasing adoptions. Despite the good intentions, the financial incentives spawned abuses by state social workers under pressure to speed up adoptions.
The metric for measuring success should be improvements in the well-being of Kentucky’s children overall, regardless of whether they are with their parents, grandparents or adoptive parents. Achieving that will take a comprehensive shoring up of the safety net for the children who are Kentucky’s future.