Politics & Government

Bill would require assessment of children in Kentucky's child protection system

FRANKFORT — Removed from her parents' custody when she was 8, Heather Walker bounced from relative to relative before she entered the state child protection system at 13. She moved seven times in the first year after becoming a ward of the state.

The constant moving and the lack of connection to adults translated to poor self esteem as an adult, and she had trouble forming long-term attachments in her late teens and early 20s, Walker told the House Health and Welfare Committee on Thursday.

Walker said too many children in child protection — including her own adoptive son and foster children — are moved too often in the state's child protection system.

Under House Bill 364, which unanimously passed the House Health and Welfare Committee on Thursday, the Cabinet for Health and Family Services would have to assess children entering the system to determine the best placement for them. The cabinet oversees child protection in Kentucky.

HB 364 would cost about $12 million. The bill now goes to the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee, where its fate is uncertain.

Currently, only half of the children in the child protection system receive an assessment, and it occurs only after they have not done well in traditional foster care, said Michelle Sanborn, the president of the Children's Alliance, a non-profit advocating for private children service agencies in Kentucky.

HB 364 would increase payments to the state's private child-care providers.

Private, residential treatment facilities for children are currently reimbursed at 80 percent of the costs for providing care, said Rep. Brent Yonts, D-Greenville, primary sponsor of the bill.

Some private residential treatment facilities for children are struggling. Some have had to lay off staff and are slashing services, said Kathy Pellegrino, a board member of Home of the Innocents in Louisville, which provides residential and other services for children in the state's custody.

"There is no road contractor that builds roads for 80 percent of the cost," Pellegrino said.

HB364 would also reinstate a statewide committee to examine child-care placements. The committee has not met since 1999 even though it has been required by law to do so.

The committee would develop a three-year plan, assess needs for services, and address shortcomings in the child protection system. Sanborn said that more than 6,548 children are in out-of-home placements in Kentucky. About half of them are in private foster care or residential treatment.

The moving of children from placement to placement causes long-term problems for the children, and intensive residential treatment is costly for the state, Sanborn said.

Most children have an average of five placements in Kentucky's child protection system. Some children have been moved as many as 20 times. One child, Sanborn said, had been moved 51 times.

Walker said having the right placement will mean better outcomes for the children, who are often lost in the discussion about the child protection system.

Walker, who now lives in Louisville, has written and illustrated two books and is currently working on a third for a series called Charlie Foster, about a child in foster care.

The Charlie Foster books are an extension of her love for writing and a way to speak to and for children in custody, she said after Thursday's meeting.

"I've always wanted to be able to do something to help children in foster care," Walker said.

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