Abuse and neglect cases rising in Kentucky's 'fractured' foster care system

LOUISVILLE, Ky., (WDRB) – As longtime foster parents, Louisville residents Debbie and Roger Lance know better than most the intricacies of navigating Kentucky’s foster care program.

And they can quickly rattle off the problems they believe the state needs to work on:

* The caseload is crushing for the number of social workers in Kentucky, overwhelming the system

* The courts are so backed up and the process so cumbersome that it takes several  months, if not years, to get a child out of a bad situation

* Parents are given too many chances, allowed to keep their children even after allegations of abuse or neglect have been sustained, sometimes repeatedly

“Parents are given chance after chance and it’s just not fair for the children,” said Debbie Lance, claiming two of her foster kids were abused, yet continued to live with their parents until yet another allegation of neglect was substantiated. “It infuriates me. … I feel like as foster parents, we have no voice, none.”

Child protection experts don’t disagree with the Lances.

“If the system’s not broken, it’s at least fractured or sprained,” said Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, a private organization that promotes child well-being. “We know that more kids face crisis in 2015 than we could ever imagine.”

Statistics provided by the Department of Community Based Services, the agency that oversees child protection in Kentucky, appear to support those claims.

There were 129,000 calls to a state abuse hotline in fiscal year 2015, up from 108,000 calls in 2011. Of those calls, 60,000 met the criteria for an investigation and in 26,500 cases, the abuse was substantiated. As a comparison, in 2013, 18,000 abuse claims were supported.

In addition, the number of Kentucky children removed from homes because of abuse or neglect has been closing in on nearly 8,000 in the last few months, compared to a little more than 7,000 cases in 2010.

“Our caseloads are too high right now,” Teresa James, the department’s commissioner, said in a recent interview with WDRB. “I don’t believe that we have adequate staffing at this department right now to deal with the additional calls, the additional number of children in care and the additional responsibilities for investigations right now. “

James said the average caseload is about 20 cases per worker, much higher than it should be, especially given the complexity of the cases. While James couldn’t say what she would like the caseload number to be, she said the department was currently figuring out how many more staffers needed to be hired.

“It is a significant number and quite frankly it will be a significant cost to the commonwealth,” she said.

Experts say caseloads are rising, at least in part, because of increasing drug abuse, especially the heroin epidemic across the state.

In her first decade on the bench, Chief Jefferson Family Court Judge Paula Sherlock said she remembers only one case in which a parent was using heroin.

“The last two years, on my neglect docket, it’s virtually every other case,” Sherlock said.

Just last week alone, she had 10 hearings to temporarily remove children from their homes -- and six involved parents using heroin.

“My observations are that these parents are in very poor physical shape, are either homeless or on their way to being homeless and not easily going to treatment,” she said.

And in many cases, Sherlock said, parents are choosing heroin instead of their children, refusing to go to treatment and often not even showing up to court.

“Even losing their kids is not enough motivation to overcome the pull of addiction,” she said.

There are currently 971 kids in foster care in Jefferson County, the highest number in the last five years.

“My firm belief is we have lost more parents in the last two years to heroin than to a number of years before to prescription pill overdoses.”

It can take several months, if not more than a year, to remove a child from a home in which allegations of abuse or neglect have been substantiated.

James acknowledges the adoption process in Kentucky takes too long.

However, under federal guidelines, parents are given up to 18 months to come up with a plan and permanent residency, with some treatment programs lasting as long as a year, she said.

“We have to have exhausted all reasonable efforts, is what the law requires of us,” James said, adding that foster care is a “last resort,” as the goal is to keep families together if possible. “Stats really show us that if kids can be reunified safely, that is the best outcome.”

Still, James said the department is working to add or expand programs that should improve the system, including a system meant to reduce caller wait times and provide better quality.

And the state hopes to work with Kentucky Youth Advocates and expand a “Kinship care” program, in which children go live with family members instead of being put in foster care.

Currently, according to Kentucky Youth Advocates, six percent of Kentucky children are in the program, which the organization says is the highest rate in the nation.

Brooks said the number of Kentucky kids in Kinship care has doubled in the last ten years.

“If our goal is to reunite kids with their parents, family reunification is enhanced through Kinship care,” Brooks said.

The state has recently created a Kinship hotline to provide resource coordination and support to assist relative caregivers.

Both Brooks and James said that Kentucky is making strides to improve the system – and noted that similar issues are plaguing foster care across the country.

“I think there is more awareness about the growing number of kids in crisis and a growing commitment toward those kids,” Brooks said.

For Debbie and Roger Lance, while they have been frustrated by the system and are hoping for major reform, the end result is worth the struggle.

“It’s very rewarding, to see the children come into your home, and most of them are broken … and then to watch them blossom and grow and feel safe and secure - there is nothing that can describe that feeling,” Debbie Lance said.

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