Becky Mullins' heart broke two decades ago when the 2- and 3-year-old sisters for whom she cared as a foster mother were ordered back to their biological parents, where they had been abused until the state of Kentucky removed them.
The girls had spent nearly all of their short lives in the Mullins' Lee County home while their biological parents tried to convince caseworkers that they were learning responsible behavior. Mullins was the only mother they knew. So they wept uncontrollably as caseworkers carried them away, Mullins said.
Even after three years, Mullins said, caseworkers acknowledged that they still harbored doubts about the girls' biological parents. But reunification with family is twice as likely to be the identified goal of child-welfare cases in Kentucky as adoption. Nobody was interested in hearing what the girls or the foster parents had to say in court about the girls' best interests, she said.
"I probably had a breakdown. I was asking, 'Why has God not heard my prayers?'" recalled Mullins in a recent interview at the vocational high school where she teaches. Mullins is president of the Kentucky Foster and Adoptive Care Association.
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"I have lost my mother, I have been through a divorce, I have lost my father. But nothing compares to losing these kids who were in our home, because they were not sent back to a good situation," she said. "I lay in my bed at night and I could not sleep. I couldn't imagine what those girls were going through. ... They really fell through the cracks."
Changes are coming for the thousands of Kentucky children who are — like those two girls — removed from their homes each year for their own protection and then forced to live indefinitely in legal limbo.
Last month, the legislature passed and Gov. Matt Bevin signed into law House Bill 1, which will make several important reforms to the state's child-welfare system. Among them:
▪ Stricter deadlines for biological parents to turn around their troubled lives or — failing that — for the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services to ask a judge to sever parental rights so it can permanently place children with adoptive families.
Termination of parental rights could begin after a child has been in state care for any 15 of the last 48 months. The cabinet would review the case and make a recommendation to a judge about the child's future within six months. The court would get updates every three months after that until the child is permanently placed.
This alone could make an enormous difference. On average, the 9,034 Kentucky children who were in state care on April 1 had spent 22 months moving between three different home placements, according to cabinet data.
But that's just a statistical average. In interviews, foster parents tell of children who spend three or four years waiting to learn their fates, like the girls who stayed with Mullins. ("One little girl who came to me, I was her ninth placement," Mullins said.) This has been aggravated by the worsening scourge of drug addiction. Parents hooked on opioids might relapse and enter treatment multiple times as their children are held indefinitely by the state.
"We don't want biological parents thinking, 'Oh, it's OK, I've got a year before I have to start getting my act together,'" said state Rep. Joni Jenkins, D-Shively, who was one of the bill's sponsors.
"We need pretty hard deadlines to motivate them to move right now," Jenkins said. "A year to an adult isn't that long, but it is to a child. You don't get your first year back if you spend it in foster care. You don't get your second year back."
The older a child is, the harder it can be to place him in an adoptive home, said Paul Huber, a foster and adoptive parent in Jessamine County. The average age of a child in state care is 9 years old. The clock is ticking as biological parents keep getting second chances from the authorities, Huber said.
"The problem is, your local judges have a say, and often they'll say 'OK, we'll give the parents three more months to work their plan before we even talk about terminating parental rights,'" Huber said. "And then they'll do that two or three more times. So now you've got a child who's been in state care for a year longer than he or she really needed to be."
▪ Greater authority for foster parents over seemingly small matters, like being allowed to approve haircuts for children on their own, and larger concerns, such as having the right to be heard in family court and cabinet proceedings about the children's future.
Foster parents complain that caseworkers and judges sometimes treat them as little better than babysitters, showing no interest in what they have to say about the children they shelter. Foster parents say they're not always told that a hearing has been scheduled, much less invited to speak.
"There seems to have been in prior years this unspoken power play within the system. Hopefully, all that is coming about now will clear that up. But (foster) parents have faced retribution if they questioned or they pushed or they advocated for the child to, you know, not be dragged out for so long or asked why aren't the time-lines being met," said Melinda McGuire, a foster parent in Rockcastle County.
▪ A confidential registry of "putative fathers" — men who believe they might be the fathers of a baby and want their names listed with the cabinet so they can establish parental rights. Potential adoptive families could check to see if a putative father is listed before they proceed with an adoption, to reduce the chances of an unexpected legal challenge from that direction later.
▪ A new legislative oversight panel, the Child Welfare Oversight and Advisory Committee, that publicly will study ongoing problems with foster care, adoption, child abuse, neglect and dependency, and recommend solutions that future legislative sessions can enact.
Also, HB 1 gives more independence to the cabinet's Office of the Ombudsman to investigate complaints about how the cabinet and its contractors, such as private foster care and residential services, handle cases involving children. And it requires twice-yearly public meetings of local review boards that hear concerns about the foster care systems in their communities.
Lawmakers say this part of the bill is meant to let more sunshine into an often secretive and confusing bureaucracy.
"Having a standing committee looking at the welfare of children, I think, will be a game-changer," Jenkins said. "It will let us drill down and see what's still not working in the lives of the children of our commonwealth so we can change it."
▪ A study group that will recommend to Bevin and the legislature by July 1, 2019, whether Kentucky should completely privatize its foster care system.
Private outfits such as Omni Visions Inc., The Adanta Group, Sunrise Children's Services and NECCO already provide foster homes and residential centers for roughly half of the children in state care in Kentucky. Lawmakers say they want to determine if the state should outsource this responsibility altogether.
Foster parents who work with the cabinet said they're wary of privatization. Private firms get daily payment rates from the state that are much higher than foster parents who deal directly with the cabinet, they said — a range of $44.82 to $136.96, compared to a range of $24.10 to $42.40 — and it's not clear that for-profit employees receive the same levels of training and oversight that they do.
"Privatization in California was an epic fail," Mullins said. "Other states that have tried privatizing their foster care, it hasn't worked well for them."
Cabinet spokesman Doug Hogan there are a variety of reasons for the higher rates paid for private agency foster care. One important difference is that private agency rates cover the costs for case management and any therapeutic services needed for children, which the state pays for separately with its own foster parents, Hogan said.
Apart from HB 1, the two-year state budget the legislature passed included $22 million for pay raises for overwhelmed social workers at the cabinet, who currently have starting salaries of $33,644 and a turnover rate of 24 percent a year. Most other state employees won't get any pay raises. The budget also had $28 million to hire more social workers to help with growing caseloads and to replace social workers' outdated computers and telephones.
Foster parents said they appreciate the attention the legislature paid to the child-welfare system this winter. But they noted that Kentucky has talked about similar reforms at least since then-Gov. Ernie Fletcher's administration a dozen years ago.
"This all looks pretty on paper," Mullins said. "But if it's not protocol for the cabinet and their workers, then it's not going to do any good. And who is held accountable? Who is held accountable when they drop the ball?"