A couple with 10 children has been selected by Gov. Matt Bevin to help improve Kentucky’s child welfare system, which is struggling to cope with record numbers of children in foster care.
A news release from the governor’s office said Wednesday that Chris and Alicia Johnson will join the administration as special advisers in the Governor’s Office of Faith and Community Based Initiatives to support the state’s efforts to improve foster care and adoption.
The office was created by law in 2005 and has no budget, said Elizabeth Kuhn, Bevin’s director of communications.
Kuhn declined to say how much the Johnsons would be paid. She said the Johnsons are non-merit employees in the governor’s office and their expenses will be covered by a memorandum of agreement with the Cabinet for Health and Family Service.
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The Bevin administration declined to immediately release the contract or any of its details to the Herald-Leader, instead requiring the newspaper to file an open records request that does not have to be answered for several days.
In May 2017, Bevin hired Daniel S. Dumas, who had been a senior vice president at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, for $240,000 a year plus bonuses to overhaul Kentucky’s adoption and foster care systems.
The Republican governor had called Dumas “a visionary” who will “rethink the way we do foster care in Kentucky,” but Bevin terminated Dumas’ contract last January, saying the administration “has decided to move in a different direction.”
The state legislature this year approved a measure aimed at reforming adoption and foster care, including stricter deadlines for biological parents to turn around their troubled lives or for the state 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.
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 state data.
The law also creates a study group that will recommend to Bevin and the legislature by July 1, 2019, whether Kentucky should completely privatize its foster care system.
The news release said the Johnsons will work with churches in the state to enhance child welfare.
Chris Johnson is the former lead pastor of Liberty Baptist Church in Clermont, Fla., where he worked for 11 years. At the church, the couple began a program to connect prospective foster and adoptive parents with child welfare agencies, the news release said.
The couple has traveled widely to give speeches about the importance of recruiting, training and supporting committed foster care parents.
He has served as president of the Board for Lake Sumter Families, a regional foster and adoptive parent association in Florida, and was on the board of the Florida State Foster and Adoptive Parent Association.
“The Johnson’s commitment to foster care and adoption reform perfectly align with the work we are doing here in Kentucky to transform our child welfare system,” said first lady Glenna Bevin in the news release. “Their experience as foster parents, coupled with their advocacy work within the faith based community, has led to a unique understanding of the challenges that exist for foster and adoptive families.
Their 10 children range in age from 24 years to eight years. Three of their children are biological and seven are adopted from the foster care system. They have fostered more than 40 children in their home, according to the news release.
“Alicia and I are excited to now be able to devote a greater level of attention toward challenging others to join us in this pursuit of being used to help change lives and toward supporting those who have answered this call and who are on the front lines of protecting and nurturing children and families,” Chris Johnson said in the news release. “We look forward to joining the wonderful team in Kentucky who clearly shares this same passion.”
Bevin and his wife have nine children. Four were adopted from Ethiopia. Their oldest biological daughter, Brittiney, died at age 17 in a 2003 car accident.
The two-year state budget the legislature passed earlier this year 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.