Politics & Government

‘No place to put that baby.’ State takes more kids away from parents than it can handle

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Abandoned in Hell

The majority of Kentucky children who die or nearly die in abuse and neglect cases had previous contact with social workers, five years after the state committed itself to being a better protector.

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Nearly all of the state’s child-welfare caseworkers say their workload is unmanageable — on average, it’s twice the recommended standard — even as the state of Kentucky removes more children from their parents every year because of abuse and neglect, according to a report released Thursday.

The report and a list of recommendations was prepared by staff members of the legislature’s Program Review and Investigations Committee. It focused on the needs of the 11,387 Kentucky children living in foster care in 2016, up 15 percent from 2012, and it recommended hiring hundreds of additional caseworkers, with higher salaries.

“The increasing number of children in foster care has created challenges for state child welfare systems,” the report warned. “Excessive caseloads can lead to workers making mistakes that harm children and their families.”

Nothing in the report was surprising to people familiar with the system, said Adria Johnson, commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Community Based Services, which oversees child-protective services.

“There are several things underway that will help us address some of these recommendations, and the vast majority of these, we don’t necessarily disagree with,” Johnson said.

Johnson said it’s too early to say whether her department will be granted any financial relief in the two-year budget crafted by lawmakers during the 2018 legislative session. But she said she is counting on innovative ideas coming out of the state’s task force on adoptions and foster care.

“So, more to come,” she said.

Among the report’s findings:

▪  Only 67 percent of Kentucky children living in foster care were returned to their parents in 2016, a steady decline from 73 percent in 2012. The rate of foster children who were adopted rose during that same period, from 23 percent to 28 percent.

▪  Children were removed from homes most often for neglect; drug abuse by a parent; bad behavior by the child; a parent’s inability to cope; physical abuse; inadequate housing; a parent’s incarceration; or some combination of those factors, all of which has been aggravated by the drug addiction epidemic in Kentucky.

▪  Kentucky had between 981 and 1,153 children made available for adoption each year from 2012 and 2016 following the termination of their parents’ custodial rights. But adoption rates averaged 44 percent during that period, meaning a majority of the children were not adopted.

▪  Ninety-four percent of child-welfare caseworkers and 98 percent of their supervisors surveyed said their workloads are “unmanageable” in a normal work week. Fifty percent of caseworkers and 65 percent of supervisors said their workloads would be unmanageable no matter how many hours they worked every week.

▪  DCBS said its caseworkers managed an average caseload of 32 families as of May 2017, although state law prohibits them from handling a caseload of more than 25 and the recommended standard is closer to 12 to 15. Low pay, huge workloads and stress all contribute to high rates of turnover — currently about 24 percent — which means the typical caseworker will quit in four years, the report said.

This is not a new complaint. A year ago, social workers warned a legislative committee that the state is sweeping abused and neglected children “under the rug” by not adequately funding DCBS. Social workers who remain at the agency are overworked, underpaid and horrified by what they witness every day, they said.

“It’s about the exposure to children being beaten until they are dead, or neglected so badly that they eat their own feces because that’s how they survived, and having a supervisor who doesn’t understand why your investigation is past due,” said Rachel Blanford, a DCBS social worker who quit for a job in the private sector.

“It’s about dealing with mental illness and substance abuse and domestic violence and not having adequate training. It’s about walking into a home where a mother is lying lifeless with a needle in her arm, and the baby is soaked in urine with a bottle of spoiled milk and cheeks that should be chunky are sunken in, and you have no place to put that baby, no home to place that baby,” Blanford said.

▪  Two-thirds of caseworkers said filling out mandatory paperwork to document their activities was their most time-consuming task, taking up more of their day than visiting homes to speak with children and parents.

▪  It can be impossible to track how quickly children’s abuse and neglect cases proceed through the legal system to a final resolution because court officials do not accurately fill out the dates when mandatory hearings are held. There are deadlines for the hearings, starting at 72 hours after removal, to prevent children and families from languishing for years. But that only works if court officials document every time a child appears in the courtroom.

The Administrative Office of the Courts “explained that they were not confident in the data they compiled regarding the dates particular court actions occurred in dependency, neglect and abuse cases,” the report said. “AOC staff explained that court clerks only enter the date and rulings of various court actions if judges use the appropriate AOC standardized forms. ... Not all judges use these forms. ...”

John Cheves: 859-231-3266, @BGPolitics

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