Politics & Government

Three bills advance in effort to help 8,000 children in state custody

The Kentucky state Capitol in Frankfort.
The Kentucky state Capitol in Frankfort. John Cheves

Three bills moved forward Wednesday that are meant to help the roughly 8,000 children in the custody of the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

The House Judiciary Committee approved House Bill 123, which would set a 15-month deadline for the cabinet after it removes children from parents because of abuse or neglect. After that deadline, the cabinet either would have to reunite the children with their parents or move to terminate parental rights and begin the adoption process so the children can be placed with new families.

The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Lynn Bechler, R-Marion, told the committee that it’s “unconscionable” that children can languish in foster care for years without any prospect of a permanent home.

Of 7,917 children in cabinet custody earlier this month, about 80 percent were in foster homes, with smaller numbers placed with relatives or living in treatment centers or detention centers, according to the cabinet.

Several lawmakers told Bechler they want his bill to be amended on the House floor so the cabinet would have discretion in individual cases to extend children’s foster stay beyond 15 months if necessary. Rep. Jason Petrie referred to this as “a safety valve,” saying he would expect the cabinet to state its specific reasons for such an exemption in each case.

“These are our very most vulnerable,” said Petrie, R-Elkton. “This is something that needs to be put into focus for the cabinet and our judges.”

Simultaneously Wednesday, the Senate Health and Welfare Committee unanimously approved two House bills concerning children, with first lady Glenna Bevin testifying in support. Those bills proceed to the full Senate, which would be their final stop before being sent to Gov. Matt Bevin’s desk.

House Bill 180 would establish a new category of individuals, “fictive kin,” who could temporarily keep children removed from parents by the cabinet so they do not have to be placed in foster care. Fictive kin would be people who aren’t related to the children but who have “an emotionally significant relationship” with them, such as family friends or neighbors.

Sen. Reginald Thomas, D-Lexington, voted for HB 180, but he lamented that no money was attached. It would be helpful if the state could offer even a modest stipend to fictive kin to help offset the expense of caring for children placed with them, Thomas told his colleagues.

Tim Feeley, the cabinet’s deputy secretary, told the committee that the state budget process in 2018 might bring the revival of the Kinship Care program, which provided a $300 monthly stipend to relatives who agree to accept children removed by the state. Budget cuts forced the program to stop accepting new people in 2013. The cabinet is trying to find a way to restore Kinship Care, Feeley said.

House Bill 192 would allow 16 and 17 year olds in foster care to apply for a driver’s license with the signature of their foster parents or another adult willing to assume responsibility for them.

Under current law, minors must have a parent or legal guardian sign their driver’s license application. However, minors who are in foster care need another option because they’re not living with a parent or legal guardian, said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Larry Brown, R-Prestonsburg.

John Cheves: 859-231-3266, @BGPolitics