Kentucky lawmakers took their first step Thursday toward overhauling the state’s overburdened foster care and adoption system.
“I think this is the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in a very, very long time,” Kentucky first lady Glenna Bevin said after House Bill 1 was approved by the House Health and Family Services Committee. “There are a lot of people coming together for our children.”
The bill, which Gov. Matt Bevin and his wife support, contains dozens of changes aimed at making Kentucky’s adoption and foster care system work better for abused and neglected children who want a permanent home and adults who want to foster or adopt them.
“We’re on the cusp of doing something truly great,” said state Rep. Russell Webber, R-Shepherdsville. The bill now goes to the full House for its consideration.
One major goal is to reduce the time children spend in foster care, said State Rep. David Meade, a Stanford Republican who sponsored the bill along with several other Republicans and Democrats.
The bill spells out specific deadlines the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services must meet to ensure that children in state custody are reunified as quickly as possible with their biological family or be placed for adoption.
The state tries to do that now but “the system doesn’t always work,” Meade said. “We wanted to put time lines in the law.”
For example, the legislation says the state must make a recommendation to the courts on reunification or adoption within 15 months of a child being taken into state custody. The cabinet did not have a ready figure for the average time that process has taken in recent years, but foster care parents told the panel they have sometimes waited years to adopt children because of delays.
The Herald-Leader reported in October that the number of abused and neglected children Kentucky removes from parents has grown steadily in recent years. Last year, 11,387 Kentucky children lived in foster care, up 15 percent from 2012.
Only 67 percent of Kentucky children living in foster care were returned to their parents in 2016, down from 73 percent in 2012. Between 981 and 1,153 children were made available for adoption each year from 2012 and 2016, but adoption rates averaged 44 percent during that period.
Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, said the bill reflects “a strong commitment to prioritize the well-being of children” and “sets forth a comprehensive plan for strengthening how Kentucky supports children impacted by child abuse and neglect.”
The bill requires additional reporting of social workers’ average caseload. The Department of Community Based Services 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.
The bill would require the department to report average caseloads on a county and regional level, in addition to the statewide numbers they already track.
“We would have a better idea what is happening to our social workers in every county and not just statewide,” said Meade. “We could see where more workers are needed and what resources they need.”
Bevin has proposed in his two-year state budget to provide an extra $24 million to hire more child-protection workers and increase their pay, as well as $10.8 million to improve the foster care placement process and adoption efforts.
The bill also creates a confidential putative father registry in Kentucky. Under the proposal, an unmarried male who suspects he is the father of an infant must register with the state prior to the child’s birth if he wants to have a say in whether the child is adopted.
Twenty-seven states have putative father registries, Meade said.
Proponents contend the law would curb fathers from showing up later and causing problems for adoptions.
“If they don’t register, they wouldn’t have a say in what happens to the child,” said Meade.
The bill also directs the Health and Family Services Cabinet to create a study group to make recommendations regarding the feasibility of privatization all foster care services in the state.
Kentucky already contracts with several private licensed child-caring facilities for foster care services. “We want to see how effective privatization is,” said Meade.
Twenty-six states have privatized at least some of their foster care system, according to the American Bar Association. The ABA warns that some private providers take shortcuts to increase profits, ranging from inadequate screening of foster parents to hiring unlicensed workers.
“Privatization, like so many policy concepts, is all about the details,” said Brooks of Kentucky Youth Advocates. “There are national examples in which privatization has positively and quickly impacted outcomes for young people. On the other hand, there are other cases in which the only impact has been on increasing the providers’ bottom lines.”
If leaders proceed with a privatization study, it’s critical that “folks like former foster youth and foster parents must be active members of the group,” he said.
Becky Mullins of Beattyville, president of the Kentucky Foster and Adoptive Care Association, said her group “basically has been supportive of cabinet involvement instead of private involvement.”
But Mullins, a former foster parent who adopted two children from the system, said privatization is “worth discussing.”
House Bill 1 also creates a 10-member House committee appointed by legislative leaders called “Child Welfare Oversight and Advisory” to take up issues dealing with child welfare. Those issue now are under the domain of the legislature’s health and welfare committees.
Meade, who is a Realtor and auctioneer, and his wife, Rebecca, adopted a girl about 5 1/2 years ago. Their daughter is Cara Meade, a native of Korea who turns 7 in mid-February. It took three years to complete the adoption. The average length of time for an adoption is 1.5 years.
“As an adopted parent, I saw the length of the process, the extraordinary amount of paperwork involved, the redundancies in the process,” he said. “It’s an emotional roller coaster — to be excited about adopting a child and then the time line takes so long, so many ups and downs.”