Kudos to House Speaker Jeff Hoover for assigning a bipartisan group of lawmakers to shed light on a topic that Gov. Matt Bevin has put center stage: foster care and adoption.
Meeting for the first time May 23, the House work group heard warnings that child-protection workers are shouldering brutal caseloads that amount to a ticking bomb.
Sadly, this is old news — all the more reason to thank Hoover, R-Jamestown, and the House for keeping a perennial problem in the public eye.
The warnings from family court judges and adoption attorneys also serve as a reality check on Bevin’s insistence that no new money will be needed to repair deficiencies that will be identified by lawmakers and, presumably, his adoption czar.
Pressuring agencies to hasten adoptions, without new resources, could have tragic results, if personnel and resources are shifted from investigating suspected abuse and neglect into finalizing adoptions of children who are already safe in foster care.
The vast majority of Kentucky children awaiting adoption are already living with their “forever families.” In nine out of 10 cases, adoptive parents served as foster parents to the child they adopted, according to federal statistics; the national average is 50 percent. The average time between termination of parental rights and final adoption was 12.3 months in Kentucky vs. 12 months nationally.
The statistics are for adoptions in which state child-welfare agencies were involved in 2013-14. Since then, the opioid epidemic has flooded Kentucky’s child-protection system with young victims, with no corresponding rise in resources to make up for $50 million in cuts since the 2009 recession.
Almost 8,400 children are in state care. Adoption is the goal for about 2,400 kids for whom proceedings have begun to terminate parental rights. In about 1,200 cases a court has ended parental rights; a “forever home” has been identified for about 800, or two-thirds, of these children, Adria Johnson, commissioner of the Department for Community Based Services, explained in a KET interview.
The remaining 400 youngsters have special needs, such as medical or behavioral complications or being part of a sibling group or just being older. Teen boys make up the majority of kids for whom there is no adoptive home, Johnson told KET’s Renee Shaw.
Studies show that 10 to 25 percent of adoptions are reversed before being finalized, returning the child to foster care; a small percent of finalized adoptions are dissolved. It’s important, then, not to confuse a painstaking home study, aimed at achieving a successful adoption, with “red tape” serving no purpose.
It’s also important to build policy on data, not just anecdote. Bevin often speaks of how his family adopted four children from Ethiopia after being rejected to adopt a Kentucky child. Bevin has said it “crushed” him to think the child was unloved.
While there’s no way to know because of privacy laws, it seems likely that the child would have been placed in a home that, after evaluation, was deemed better suited to her needs.
The federal government puts more than $400 million a year into child protection in Kentucky. In the latest federal review of those programs, the very few strengths identified involved foster care and adoption.
Many troubling weaknesses were identified, including timely investigating and protecting children from abuse and neglect — weaknesses that won’t be fixed without more social workers and more money.