Time to make new child-welfare law work

Published 12:17 pm Monday, August 13, 2018

A pair of new state and federal child-welfare laws demand swift, capable action by Gov. Matt Bevin’s administration.

So, here’s hoping kids and taxpayers get more out of the governor’s new “special advisers” than they did from his “adoption czar.”

Kentucky will pay Chris and Alicia Johnson $165,000 a year to assume the role previously held by Dan Dumas, a Baptist pastor, who was paid $20,000 a month until Bevin cut him loose after seven months with $60,000 in termination pay.

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Kentucky children in foster care have increased by 1,000 over the last year. Kentucky had the nation’s highest rate of increase in children entering foster care, according to a legislative report last year. As of July 1, Kentucky reported 9,528 children in foster care.

Kentucky’s drug overdose deaths also rose last year, by 11.5 percent from the prior year, to 1,565. The opioid epidemic is fueling the breakdown of families.

The state needs new foster parents. It also needs to provide more (or, in many cases, any) financial support to grandparents and other relatives who take in neglected or abused children.

Most important, Kentucky needs better ways to prevent the neglect and abuse that land children in foster care.

Prevention to preserve families, including drug treatment for parents, is the thrust of a law enacted by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump in February as part of a federal spending bill.

What worries us — and should worry legislators — is the state’s readiness to implement House Bill 1, enacted by Kentucky’s legislature this year, or to comply with the federal Family First Prevention Services Act, which changes the standards for federal foster-care funding to states, effective 2020.

Kentucky lost its child-protection chief in June. Adria Johnson resigned after, says her lawyer, being subjected to “repeated acts” of discrimination and sexual harassment. Johnson is seeking a cash settlement, but officials in the Cabinet for Health and Family Services say their investigation revealed no evidence to support her claims.

Last month, Eric Clark, former CHFS chief of staff and legislative liaison, succeeded her as commissioner of the Department of Community Based Services, which range from child and elder protection to food stamps and financial assistance for needy families.

Adam Meier, formerly Bevin’s top policy aide and an architect of his proposed Medicaid revamp, became secretary of the sprawling CHFS in May.

Meanwhile, Kentucky grandparents and others who are foster parents to young relatives are still waiting for the same state support (average $750 a month) as other foster families, even though it’s been almost a year since a federal judge ruled that they were entitled to equal treatment.

A different but related program, Kinship Care, which provides $300 a month to relatives who have custody of a child or are informally caring for one, will receive an additional $4.9 million over the next two years. Kinship Care was closed to new applicants five years ago; the backlog of need already exceeds the new money, and the cabinet is writing new regulations for the program.

HB 1, which was championed by First Lady Glenna Bevin, allows the cabinet to create new advancement opportunities for state social workers. The legislature put $50 million into the budget to give social workers pay raises, hire more of them and upgrade their technology.

HB 1 has been hailed by the governor as transformational. And it can be, but only if it’s capably implemented.

The bill also established the Child Welfare Oversight and Advisory Committee, made up of lawmakers, to spotlight gaps in how the law’s working. Here’s also hoping that committee gets to work soon.

Lexington Herald-Leader