A recent report from the state Child Fatality and Near Fatality External Review Panel paints a bleak picture for some of Kentucky’s most vulnerable youth. Of the 200 cases of abuse and neglect they investigated, 80 children died, while the remainder sustained life-threatening injuries. Many of those 200 children were under 4 years of age.
The report is an indicator of another troubling statistic: Kentucky has led the nation in the rate of child abuse for the past three years.
The causes, according to child welfare advocates, are many, including poverty, housing insecurity, substance abuse, one or both parents incarcerated, and a lack of social support services. On top of those, you can now add a global pandemic.
“COVID is… the perfect storm,” says Cabinet for Health and Family Services Secretary Eric Friedlander. “It’s economic challenge, it’s uncertainty, it’s isolation – our normal pathways of reporting are not there.”
Pandemic closures meant children weren’t in school or in daycare for months at a time, where teachers might have reported their concerns to authorities. Dr. Melissa L. Currie, a child abuse pediatrics specialist and a member of the review panel, says isolation from extended family and friends also meant fewer people were looking after the wellbeing of children.
“We have seen uptick in the number of cases of torture in young children and I think the pandemic is only going to show that getting worse,” says Currie.
Social workers did try to help in many of these cases. The review panel report shows that about two-thirds of the families involved had prior contact with state social services. Of the fatalities documented, 75 of the 80 deaths were listed as preventable. Sen. Julie Raque Adams (R-Louisville) says the problem has gotten so bad that lawmakers can no longer ignore it.
“We can’t wait around any longer,” says Adams, who is co-chair of the Child Welfare Oversight and Advisory Committee. “It is all hands on deck and we have got to tackle the issue.”
A ‘Comprehensive Approach’ to Child Welfare
Adams is the sponsor of Senate Bill 8, which seeks to address many of the factors that undermine the state’s response to child abuse and neglect cases. She says the legislation was developed during the interim period last year when her advisory committee talked with stakeholders about the issues from public policy to staffing to funding.
SB 8 updates the definitions of abuse and neglect, strengthens kinship care, expands the use of so-called fictive care, creates new rights for foster children, and increases Medicaid reimbursement rates for child advocacy centers. SB 8 also directs social workers to intervene when children are at moderate risk of abuse instead of waiting until they are at imminent risk. Adams says the goal is to provide wrap-around services to families sooner rather than waiting until the only option might be to place the child in foster care.
“In my opinion, trying to change the paradigm from taking the child out to healing the family is so critical,” says Adams
SB 8 passed the Senate on Feb. 2 on a 32-4 vote, and now awaits actions by the House of Representatives, where the legislation is already drawing bipartisan praise.
“The work in Senate Bill 8 is extraordinary,” says House Minority Floor Leader Joni Jenkins of Louisville. “It sets us on a right path.”
The Democrat says she appreciates the input from youth that is reflected in the bill, saying lawmakers need to hear from kids who have experienced the system to learn about the problems they have. But she also warns that this this cannot be a one-bill, single-session effort. Jenkins, who is not seeking reelection, says lawmakers in this and future General Assembly sessions must appropriate the dollars needed to improve child welfare and social services for families.
“I think we should be watching the budget process and see if we’re going to put our money where our mouth is,” says Jenkins. “Year after year, the legislature has to be committed to making sure it’s funded.”
Adams agrees that funding is crucial, especially, she says, since abused and neglected children don’t come to Frankfort to lobby for the services they need.
“It’s so frustrating because the first places that we find to cut are human services and they really should be the last place that we cut,” says Adams. “That’s where our investment is in our future.”
Child welfare advocates have also applauded SB 8. Kentucky Youth Advocates Executive Director Terry Brooks says the legislation takes a comprehensive approach to child welfare. He praises provisions that he says will put youth aging out of foster care on to a path to success. He also endorses a greater emphasis on kinship care (placing a child with a relative like grandparents, aunts, uncles) as well as fictive care, which would place an abused child with a family friend rather than into state foster care.
“It could be a godmother, it could be a godfather, a neighbor, somebody with a connection,” says Brooks. “It provides a broader net so that young children who have to be removed from the home perhaps are placed with that caring adult that they have some connection with.”
Currie points to the expansion of family preservation services that SB 8 provides to children at moderate risk of abuse, and how the legislation removes poverty from the definition of neglect. Courier-Journal social services reporter Deborah Yetter says that’s an important change because poverty doesn’t guarantee an abusive situation but can create an environment where maltreatment could happen.
“Nearly half the kids in Kentucky are in what are considered low-income families,” says Yetter. “Poverty, of course, is not a sign of abuse but it adds to stresses on families that may already be struggling.”
Other Child Welfare Bills
Lawmakers are considering other measures this session that deal with more specific child welfare issues. Senate Bill 97 from Sen. Danny Carroll (R-Benton) would require a drug test for a parent or caregiver suspected of being under the influence at the time of a child fatality or near fatality. Currie says there are often indications of drug use by a parent in those cases, but she says that evidence is not regularly collected.
“We routinely test folks who are in fatal car crashes and industrial accidents,” says Currie. “It makes sense that we would test folks in the setting of an unexpected child death.”
Adams says SB 97, which has passed the Senate, is a good companion to her legislation, but she adds it could be changed in the House to clarify the timeframe in which the drug test should occur. Jenkins says she supports SB 97, but says it should include a provision for substance abuse treatment.
“If we’re going to drug test folks, then we have to offer them treatment,” says Jenkins.
SB 97 also includes language to require the Cabinet for Health and Family Services to acknowledge and respond to recommendations made by the Child Fatality and Near Fatality External Review Panel. Yetter says the cabinet would also have to explain why they can or cannot implement those recommendations.
Friedlander says his cabinet should address those recommendations. He says the agency has in the past resisted outside reviews and policy recommendations that would have been beneficial.
House Bill 263 from Rep. C. Ed Massey (R-Hebron) increases the criminal penalties when an abuse victim is under the age of 12.
But another measure regarding parental rights is creating concern among child welfare advocates. Sen. Stephen West’s Senate Bill 40 says a parent “shall have the fundamental right to make decisions concerning their care, custody, and control” of their child or children. A parent who feels this right has been violated by a state agency could sue for damages.
Brooks says West has been good on child-oriented legislation, but he fears SB 40 could hamper reporting of child maltreatment and have a “chilling effect” on the state’s response to such cases.
“If the Senate moves [SB 40] ahead and Senate Bill 8, that is legislative schizophrenia because it works in opposite directions,” says Brooks.
Kentucky has one of the strongest mandatory reporting laws for child abuse and neglect in the nation, according to Currie. She says SB 40 could undermine that. Friedlander says he is worried about the unintended consequences of the measure.
Funding for Social Workers and Family Drug Courts
Perhaps the biggest challenge hindering the state’s response to cases of child abuse and neglect is the shortage of social workers. In the past year, CHFS has lost some 470 social workers and another 320 family support workers. Officials attribute the departures to low pay, scaled-back pension benefits, high caseloads, and job stress.
Gov. Andy Beshear gave social workers a 10 percent pay raise last December, and he included funding for 350 new social workers in his proposed state budget. Friedlander calls that a “down payment” on what the cabinet needs to function effectively.
The House version of the budget provided an additional pay raise for current social workers, but only funded 200 new positions. Jenkins says that lower number is “problematic.” In addition to more staff and better pay, Jenkins says the social workers she’s talked to also want things like tuition reimbursement and better working conditions and hours.
“They get secondary trauma from their work,” says Jenkins. “We need to make sure that they have the mental health resources that they need, that they have time off for self-care.”
The Senate has not released its spending plan yet, but Adams says they shouldn’t discount the executive branch request for more social workers.
“This is one of those significant areas that in my opinion we can’t short-change,” says Adams. “So we’ll take the governor’s recommendation very seriously.”
Another change that child welfare advocates say would make a dramatic difference is a restoration of funding for so-called family drug courts (also known as family recovery courts). These specialized courts worked intensively with drug offenders to provide addiction treatment as well as wrap-around supports for their families.
“The family recovery courts have been shown to be remarkably successful at keeping families together,” says Yetter. “Rather than taking kids away or terminating parents’ rights, they work with the parents to overcome addiction issues.”
But the state cut funding for these courts in 2010. Today the courts exist only in Jefferson and Clay Counties thanks to local funding.
Yetter says the Child Fatality and Near Fatality External Review Panel has asked lawmakers for six years to reinstate drug court funding, but to no avail. Currie says the courts provide an effective way to keep certain offenders out of the criminal justice system, get them into treatment, and keep their families whole.
“The outcomes for kids have been shown to be positive, the outcomes for families have been shown to be positive, and they save money,” says Currie.