A foster parent’s ideas for helping Kentucky’s children

It’s usually not a good thing when the foster-care system is in the news because the story is typically sad. Readers were rightfully upset by the Herald-Leader’s Feb. 3 article documenting the abuse suffered by an eight-year-old girl, despite the fact that reports had been made to child protective services.

The Herald-Leader also reported an increase in the number of abuse cases, many of which also concerned cases in which reports had been made to child-protective services. These cases are heartbreaking and, to the extent they are preventable, should be a source of shame to Kentuckians.

So I am cautiously optimistic following Gov. Matt Bevin’s remarks in his state of the commonwealth address regarding improvements to Kentucky’s foster-care and adoption programs.

The General Assembly has sent the governor two bills to improve the lives of foster children: House Bill 192, which would allow those aged 16 and up to obtain a learner’s permit or driver’s license with a foster parent’s consent; and House Bill 180, which would permit social workers to place foster children with “fictive kin,” persons not related to a child but who nonetheless have a close relationship with him or her.

For publicized reasons that I find unconvincing, Senate Bill 181, which would prevent abusive parents from removing their children from schools (thereby concealing abuse from teachers) failed to emerge from the Senate Judiciary Committee.

More can, and should be, done. My wife, Stephanie, and I have been foster parents for nearly six years. I have represented families seeking adoption of foster children in court, and Stephanie has mentored foster families. Based on my experiences, I offer the following suggestions for improving the child-protective services system:

▪ More funding. Kentucky’s child protective workers are underpaid and overworked. Consequently, it is difficult for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services to retain workers. To his credit, the governor pushed for a raise for social-services workers and supervisors, and it is no secret that Kentucky faces budgeting crises in other areas. But the budget should not be built by skimping on neglected and abused children. Even if investing in Kentucky’s children were not the right thing to do, failing to help them deprives the commonwealth of the productive citizens they can be in the future.

▪  Fewer barriers to foster parenting. Kentucky suffers from a lack of foster parents. Cabinet workers often send foster children from Lexington and Louisville to homes in rural counties (thereby severing their relationships) because no available foster parents can be found in their hometowns. More foster parents are needed, but measures — often well-intentioned ones — prevent people from becoming or remaining foster parents. Prospective foster parents must take 18 hours of training and complete a criminal background check, three home visits, a physical and detailed financial disclosure forms. Once they become foster parents, they must annually re-submit financial disclosures and the results of their physical and complete 10 hours of continuing education. Now, on top of this, foster parents in Fayette County must take an additional 30 hours of training on trauma and sexual abuse, during which child care is not provided or compensated. Make no mistake, foster parents must be trained and carefully evaluated. But overly stringent requirements can drive good foster parents out of the system.

▪  Minimizing the number of children in foster care. One of the best ways to get kids out of foster care is to keep them from going into it in the first place. That starts with helping their parents. Kentucky has a well-publicized problem with drug addiction and overdose; a parent who is dead or in prison obviously can’t care for their child. Other children find their way into foster care due to a parent’s mental illness. Treatment for addiction and mental illness not only helps the person being treated, it can keep a family together. Similarly, providing prenatal and early-childhood care to young parents would help. Finally, laws that ease the transition of felons back into society would help those individuals obtain better economic opportunities to allow them to provide for their children.

▪ Listening to the right people. Policymakers must talk to foster parents and social workers. Even better, they should talk to former foster parents and ex-social workers, find out why they left the system and ask them what would have made them stay. Most importantly, they should talk to foster children themselves and children who have aged out of the system. No matter how good their intentions, the governor and General Assembly do not have all the answers. A collaborative approach would result in smart policy that puts the emphasis where it should be — on the well-being of the children.

The governor’s interest in bettering the lives of foster children is on record and, I believe, genuine. The hard part is translating good intentions into positive action. The children of Kentucky deserve no less.

John Spires of Lexington is an attorney and foster parent.