Gagging Kentucky’s social workers won’t save its children

Satirical tweet about warning sent to employees of Cabinet for Health and Family Services.
Satirical tweet about warning sent to employees of Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

Governors come, governors go, but the secrecy and stonewalling around Kentucky’s beleaguered child-protection bureaucracy is forever.

Latest example: A memo warning employees that unauthorized contacts with news media could result in disciplinary action including firing. The warning comes at a time when the opioid crisis is devastating Kentucky families and overwhelming the decimated ranks of social workers who risk their safety to rescue children from sometimes violent situations.

State officials insist the memo, which went out Sept. 23, was just a routine reminder and not a response to child-protection workers’ recent public complaints about dangerous working conditions and untenable caseloads. All employees of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, not just those working in child protection, received the memo.

Even so, the warning was clumsy and insensitive coming just two days after child-protection workers had testified about their concerns to a legislative committee. A social worker told lawmakers that she was “terrified” about speaking out because “most of us have been conditioned for retaliation.” Child-protection workers also are expressing concerns on a Facebook page.

In response, cabinet officials pledged that “the days of retaliation for workers making constructive criticism are over” and promised openness and transparency. Bevin administration officials strengthened their credibility by saying that caseloads are higher than previous administrations have admitted. They said they are working on a more accurate count and on ways to better support case workers and children.

But then out came that memo from a cabinet that fought, unsuccessfully, for years to keep secret the records of how it handled cases in which children died of abuse or neglect. No wonder the memo drew cries of hypocrisy.

Stress and low pay have long taken a toll on child-protection ranks, but the turnover has worsened. In Louisville, one-third of workers have resigned or retired this year. Statewide a record-high almost 8,000 children are in foster care in Kentucky.

A long overdue pay raise for child-protection workers (supervisors are now making $40,800 a year) took effect in September and is a step in the right direction.

The state also should unfreeze funding for relatives who care for children of unfit parents and extend the aid to out-of-state family and qualified friends. The cost of foster care is more than double the $300 monthly stipend for Kinship Care which has been frozen for three years. Placing children in foster care because a grandparent on a fixed income can’t afford to take them in is the height of false economy.

The crisis in child protection has been building for a long time and was inherited by the Bevin administration which has been in office less than 10 months. But falling into old familiar patterns of talk-without-action and trying to hide the cabinet’s shortcomings will only make a bad situation worse.