Advocates say family drug courts could save Kentucky children, but state support is still limited Friday, Apr 1 2022 

Chaly Downs was addicted to heroin and fentanyl when child protective services took custody of her children — an intervention she says should have happened sooner. 

“My children weren’t being taken care of,” Downs said. “I can see now that they were really suffering more than I could realize in the state that I was in.” 

At the peak of her addiction in 2019, the 37-year-old mother of four found herself praying for help.

headshot of Chaly Downs

Chaly Downs

Chaly Downs, 37, graduated from Jefferson County’s Family Recovery Court in 2021.

“I just called out to God and I was like ‘I don’t know how you’re going to do it or what you’re going to do, but God,’” she said, “‘please do something.’”

Just two days later, a CPS worker knocked on her door. 

Downs was then offered an opportunity that she said saved her and her children’s lives — a spot in Jefferson County’s Family Recovery Court, one of only two programs in the state designed to reunite families and help parents overcome substance misuse. The state’s only other family recovery court is in Clay County in Southeastern Kentucky.

Advocates say family recovery courts — also known as family drug courts — are crucial in protecting children from abuse and neglect, which often go hand in hand with addiction. In fact, nearly half of the Kentucky children who died or were severely injured from maltreatment in 2020 also experienced substance misuse in their homes.

Despite their undisputed effectiveness in protecting children, and even though Kentucky has some of the highest rates of child maltreatment and opioid abuse in the nation, family recovery courts are still not widely available throughout the state. 

The state previously funded several family drug courts, but they were eliminated in 2010 due to budget cuts. Now, over a decade later, the state legislature has decided to restore some of this funding — but only in Jefferson County. 

And while this revival of state funding, although limited, is a step in the right direction, advocates say funding for these courts should have been available in more counties across the state, especially in a budget year that left $1 billion unspent.

For six years in a row in its annual report, the state Child Fatality and Near Fatality External Review Panel has urged the state to expand family recovery courts throughout Kentucky — a recommendation that they say has been largely ignored.

“We need more action,” said Dr. Melissa Currie, a forensic pediatrician and member of the panel since it was created by the Kentucky legislature in 2012. “Long term, family drug court outcomes have shown positive results for parental employment and certainly for reducing child abuse and neglect.”

Experts say benefits outweigh cost

The Child Fatality and Near Fatality External Review Panel is charged with reviewing the details of hundreds of severe cases every year  that result in the death or life-threatening injury of a child and providing recommendations to the state for preventing such cases.

“The vast majority of our overall cases are considered preventable,” Currie said.

Substance misuse within families continues to be a major risk factor in the child maltreatment cases that the panel reviews. And its annual report shows that families who struggle with substances are also more likely to be dealing with mental health concerns, poverty and domestic violence.

“It needs to be made a priority in order for the funding to show up,” Currie said. “There needs to be a better understanding of the potential benefits of family drug court, in avoiding incarceration of parents and improving the chance that they will get help and will stay clean and sober.”

But with only advisory power, Currie said, there is only so much the panel can do to persuade the state to act. She’s concerned that many of the agencies who are mentioned in these recommendations may not even be reviewing them at all.

“There’s been no requirement or really nothing to compel agencies to look at the report to see what it says,” she said. 

To address this issue, the Kentucky legislature passed a bill this week that will require state agencies to respond to recommendations and either communicate plans to implement them or give reasons for why they are reluctant to do so. 

The child fatality panel specifically recommends that the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts be responsible for developing a budget proposal for the expansion of family recovery courts. This is the same agency that had to cut them from the budget 12 years ago.

Prior to that, family drug courts were available in several regions throughout the state, including Louisville and Lexington. But in 2010, Kentucky’s judicial branch faced a $7 million budget deficit, resulting in the elimination of many programs that were considered non-essential. 

According to former chief judge for the Jefferson County Family Court Patricia Walker FitzGerald, the return of family drug courts are long overdue.

“The legislature has to make a commitment to fund drug courts,” she said. “The traditional ways in which the courts have addressed family issues are not effective. We do too little too late.”

Cindy Kamer, a court liaison for Seven Counties Services who helps oversee the program in Jefferson County, said the cost of implementing family recovery courts throughout the state would be more than worth it long term.

A cost analysis of Jefferson County’s program shows that while it takes around $250,000 to operate, the program is creating significant savings when it comes to the costs of substance-exposed births, out-of-home care for children, jail and probation, emergency room visits and Medicaid. 

The result is an overall savings of over $800,000 — and that’s just in Jefferson County.

A trauma-informed approach to recovery

Family recovery courts focus on welfare of abused and neglected children while also providing the support that parents need to address their addiction. The court currently has two judges and partners with state agencies and community organizations to provide resources such as substance use treatment, parenting classes, therapy and assistance with housing, transportation and employment if needed. 

Kentucky was without family recovery courts entirely for nearly a decade. Jefferson County’s family recovery court was relaunched in 2019 after the National Council of Jewish Women raised nearly $600,000 to help fund the program. 

After several years of advocacy, the court finally secured a spot in the state budget through the Department for Community Based Services. The court will receive $375,000 each year for the next two years, under the budget approved by the General Assembly.

A second court was started in Clay County last year after it received a federal, three-year grant with the help of Volunteers of America. State funding is not currently available for this program.

“Whereas other drug courts are really punitive in nature, we are really focused on a positive reinforcement model, while still holding participants accountable,” said Cindy Kamer, a court liaison for Seven Counties Services who helps oversee the program. 

Kamer said the program is also centered around addressing trauma, for both parents and children. 

“We recognize that substance use doesn’t occur in a vacuum, and that a parent doesn’t just wake up one day and decide that this is how they want to spend their lives,” she said. 

Participants learn how their past experiences have led to their current behaviors, as well as how their current behaviors have created hardships for their children.

“They learn how to help rectify that to ensure that we are not creating this multi generational system of trauma,” Kamer said. 

The impact

When Chaly Downs was brought into the program in 2019, she had a lot of her own trauma to work through. And she also lived in a household with drug abuse while growing up.

“I’ve been through a lot. And it got to the point where using [drugs] was like you and I breathing air right now,” Downs said. “ You have to have oxygen to stay alive.”

Downs has been sober for over two years now, has a job at Voices of the Commonwealth and has since been granted custody or partial custody of her kids. And they are thriving.

“I cannot go back. My kids are the reasons why I get up and go so hard everyday,” she said. “My main goal is to make sure they have a solid foundation so they can succeed and be better than me.”

The family recovery court model is also different from typical drug courts or CPS cases, because in addition to the 18-month program, they also stay in contact with participants to ensure they are safely transitioning back into parenthood.

“Some of them are parenting sober for the first time in their lives,” Kamer said. “And they don’t always have support in place, because a lot of them have had to cut those off. So we stay involved even after the children are returned.”

According to national data from the Center for Children and Family Futures, parents who participate in family recovery court are twice as likely to complete treatment for addiction and be reunited with their children.

Since 2019, Jefferson County’s program has served over 140 children and has seen 46 of them reunited with their families.

 “We know what impact this has in our communities, in particular, when you look at the rates of child abuse and neglect in Kentucky,” Kamer said. “So to be able to cut that even by a small percentage is hugely impactful for us.”

Contact Jasmine Demers at Jdemers@kycir.org.

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Stimulus aid for former foster youth isn’t reaching most eligible Kentuckians Tuesday, Feb 15 2022 

A federal stimulus package was meant to provide financial relief to current and former foster youth during the pandemic. But less than 30% of Kentucky’s $7.3 million allotment has reached young people who may need it. 

Kentuckians 18 to 26 years old who spent time in foster care were eligible for a $2,000 cash payment and help with other needs between March and September last year. The state distributed almost $2.2 million. But only about 1,000 Kentucky youth successfully applied and received relief — leaving more than $5.2 million unclaimed. 

The state recently reopened registration and has until the end of September to distribute the rest of the funds. But federal rules changed, and now it’s only available up to 23 years old. 

With no system in place to track youth who age out of foster care and a slew of obstacles exacerbated by the pandemic, local advocates are concerned that many vulnerable youth will continue to be left without crucial relief. 

“This is a reminder to all of us that the systems that are required for young people to transition successfully to adult life are fractured, broken and really not constructed in a way to help those young people succeed,” said Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates.

Officials from the Cabinet for Health and Family Services said they expected more foster youth to apply in 2021, but acknowledged they needed to do more to get the word out, such as using social media and partnering with more community organizations.

“Given the numbers last time, I think we need to cast a broader net,” said Cabinet Secretary Eric Friedlander. “We have to use every avenue possible to let folks know that there’s assistance available.”

More than 5,000 potentially eligible in Ky.

The federal stimulus package, passed by Congress in December 2020, allocated $400 million to expand relief and benefits for current and former foster youth nationwide. The legislation also placed a temporary moratorium on aging out of the system, allowing young people to stay in the system longer if they chose and allowing those who had recently left the foster care system to re-enter. 

Kentucky received over $7.3 million to distribute as $2,000 direct stimulus payments or for needs such as educational assistance, career exploration, preventative health and transportation.

Out of nearly 1,900 requests in Kentucky, 46% were rejected due to ineligibility, according to the Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

The precise number of people who should be eligible for this money isn’t known, according to state officials. However, data from the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion show that an average of 660 foster youth age-out of the system every year in Kentucky. For most youth, this means leaving the system when they turn 18, but the state also offers extended foster care until they turn 21.

That means there are likely 5,900 former foster youth between 18 and 26 who were eligible for relief, but fewer than 20% of that number have actually received the aid.

And this is a problem nationwide. According to Think of Us, a child welfare research lab, more than 500,000 former foster youth were eligible for the initial pandemic funding, but only about 16,000 signed up by the end of last August.

“I think one of the largest challenges is whether or not young people were even aware that it was available to them,” said Celeste Bodner, executive director at Foster Club, a national nonprofit for foster youth. “There is no magic list of former foster youth in this country. Once a young person has left foster care, the state no longer maintains contact in most cases.”

Why it matters

Cynthia Schepers, a 26-year-old who spent time in foster care, found out about the aid through a mentor. She worked multiple jobs at the start of the pandemic, and lost them over a few months — after she’d bought herself a new car. The $2,000 she received helped pay that bill until she got her current job as a peer coach coordinator for TrueUp in Louisville, she said.

Cynthia Schepers, a 26-year-old who spent time in foster care, is now a peer coach coordinator for TrueUp in Louisville.

“That’s what I used my whole stimulus for was the car payments,” said Schepers. “Once I lost those jobs, that pandemic relief really helped.”

Advocates say many foster youth could use financial support for more immediate needs too, including food and housing. Bodner said the pandemic has exacerbated challenges for young people from foster care, who were already at an increased risk for poverty and homelessness.

A third of all foster youth who aged out of the system in Kentucky experienced homelessness within two years of turning 21, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. And this data was before the pandemic started.

A survey published by The Field Center in 2020 shows that the already significant challenges facing foster youth increased in almost every area in just the first six months of the pandemic. Nearly half of the participants reported that the pandemic caused them to be laid off or have their hours reduced.

“What we know about young people from foster care is that they can demonstrate fantastic resilience,” Bodner said. “But these young people will take longer to recover during this pandemic than their peers, because they won’t necessarily have the family support to help them along the way.”

Systemic obstacles

Across the country, state systems already struggle with outreach and communication to young people in foster care. 

“If the system was broken before the pandemic began, money alone won’t fix it,” said Brooks of Kentucky Youth Advocates. “It shouldn’t surprise any of us that those systems have certainly not gotten easier to navigate during the pandemic.”

There are also several challenges that may have prevented foster youth from staying in touch with the state and getting information about the available pandemic aid, including insecure housing and access to phones and technology.

But the challenges continue even for those who did hear about the aid. Brooks said many young people who transition out of foster care don’t have a bank account to drop money into and also don’t have stable housing to send a check to, which creates even more delays for youth who are already struggling.

“The pragmatic implications are pretty tough,” Brooks said. “It’s not like they’re moving to a three bedroom, suburban house.”

For Schepers, who works to connect other former foster youth to resources, having a way to keep track of former foster youth is crucial. She said there needs to be more creative solutions to supporting those who age out, because the current system is not working.

“Part of the problem is that these youth feel like they need to fight for these resources,” Schepers said. “We need to make it clear to the youth that there is plenty of money and resources available to them.”

Are you a former Kentucky foster youth who might be eligible to receive pandemic relief? Here’s what you need to do:

Other resources for former foster youth:

Jasmine Demers is a corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Contact Jasmine at jdemers@kycir.org.

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Here’s the state legislation that could impact Kentucky youth Tuesday, Feb 1 2022 

Since the 2022 legislative session kicked off last month, state lawmakers have introduced a slew of proposals that directly impact young people and children in Kentucky.

The proposed bills cover a range of youth-related issues, including abortion, mental health for LGBTQ minors, corporal punishment and child abuse. Here’s what legislators will be discussing and voting on in the coming weeks. 

Abortion restrictions

Republican lawmakers introduced a bill that would make it harder for minors to get an abortion.

Kentucky already requires minors to get parental consent or a judge’s approval before they can have an abortion. But under House Bill 324, parents who consent to their child getting an abortion would need to provide identification, and physicians would be required to sign an affidavit stating they secured consent before performing the procedure. Doctors who violated the provision would face felony prosecution and disciplinary action from the Kentucky Board of Medical Licensure.

“It’s very important for us to make sure that these children have the parental consent before they make such a life-altering decision,” said Republican Rep. Nancy Tate. “You know in the schools, we don’t even want our children taking aspirin without their parental consent.”

The current law allows people under the age of 18 to file a petition through the courts if getting parental consent is “not in the best interest of the minor.” The proposal would require a judge to obtain “clear and convincing evidence that the minor is mature,” and that an abortion is in their best interest. A judge would not be allowed to use financial circumstances as a reason to grant an abortion.

“Research suggests that most adolescents do involve a parent in this decision, and those who do not worry that they could damage the relationship with a parent, they fear violence or fear being forced to continue the pregnancy,” said Jackie McGranahan, policy strategist at ACLU Kentucky, which opposes the legislation.

The new bill, McGranahan said, would make the already stringent judicial process even more onerous. 

According to state data obtained by KyCIR, Kentucky judges granted a total of 142 abortions to minors between 2010 and 2020. The courts granted the most petitions — 22 — in 2020.

McGranahan said this increase in petitions means that more and more minors feel that they cannot speak with their parents about their pregnancy due to fear of violence or other harmful outcomes. There’s also a concern among advocates that young people could be dealing with sexual abuse within their home, resulting in pregnancy.

“Decisions about pregnancy are so personal and the best person to make that decision is the pregnant person themselves,” McGranahan said. “It’s not our place, and it’s definitely not the place of the Kentucky General Assembly, to decide for someone else whether or when they should become a parent.”

Other health-related bills:

HB 55 – Certain health insurance policies would be required to cover an annual mental health wellness exam of at least 45 minutes.

HB 183 – Health benefit plans would be required to cover injectable epinephrine devices for minors.

SB 8 – Designed to address loopholes within the state’s existing child abuse and neglect laws, this bill would expand and redefine membership of the Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation Prevention Board, to include all forms of child abuse and neglect.

LGBTQ+ Youth

A bill proposed in the state House — the Youth Mental Health Protection Act — would ban conversion therapy on underage LGBTQ individuals in Kentucky. 

Conversion therapy is an attempt to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity under the scientifically discredited premise that being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer is a mental disorder. 

“We already know that suicide rates are outrageously too high for LGBTQ youth across the board,” said Chris Hartman, executive director of the Fairness Campaign. “But for those who have experienced conversion therapy practices, the suicide attempt rate is nearly half of the population.”

Advocacy groups have been trying to ban the practice in Kentucky for years. Several cities have succeeded in passing the ban within their jurisdictions, including Louisville and Lexington.

Under HB 12, licensed mental health professionals — including physicians, psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers — would face disciplinary action for violating the act. The use of public funds for sexual orientation and gender identity change efforts would also be prohibited.

“House Bill 12 is a protection for youth. It’s a practice that is detrimental,” said Republican Rep. Kim Banta. “I’ve been told that it doesn’t affect that many people, so it’s not important. But to me, anything that affects a group of youth is important.”

There are at least 145,000 people over the age of 13 in Kentucky who identify as LGBTQ, according to the Movement Advancement Project. According to GLAAD, in states that do not ban the practice, at least 20,000 youth between 13 and 17 years old will receive conversion therapy from a licensed healthcare professional. This is in addition to the estimated 57,000 youth nationwide that undergo conversion therapy from religious or spiritual advisors.

As advocates and legislators work to increase mental health protections for queer youth, some Republican legislators are looking to pass bills that would specifically prevent transgender youth from receiving gender-affirming health care.

Under HB 253 and SB 84, trans youth wouldn’t be able to receive any gender transition procedures, including hormone therapy, body reconstructions, plastic surgery or speech therapy. Physicians who offer gender-affirming health care with minors would be subject to disciplinary action.

These bills are sponsored by eight Republicans in the House and Senate, including Rep. Savannah Maddox, who wrote on her Facebook page that “every child deserves the opportunity to experience a natural childhood” and should not be given the chance to make life-altering decisions as a minor. 

Hartman of the Fairness Campaign called these bills, and others that would limit trans youth from participating in sports teams, “attacks on trans kids.” 

“The people introducing these bills, I would wager, don’t know any trans folks, certainly don’t know any trans youth, and have no idea the harm that they do just by introducing these measures and having them debated in the state legislature,” Hartman said.

Other LGBTQ Youth-related bills:

HB 23, HB 247 & SB 83 – These bills aim to prevent trans youth from participating in sports team that do not align with their biological sex.

Education

Kentucky is one of 19 states that still permit local school districts to administer corporal punishment, or the use of physical force such as paddling, to discipline students. HB 119 is the latest bipartisan effort to eliminate the practice across the state. 

Many Kentucky school districts have already created policies to prohibit the practice, but according to Rep. Tina Bojanowski, a Democrat from Louisville and sponsor of the bill, some districts either don’t have a clear policy at all or have a policy that explicitly permits it.

“As a special education teacher, I see a lot of kids with behavior issues and some of them are already working through trauma from at home,” she said. “The absolute last thing we want to do for our kids, particularly the ones who are acting out behaviorally, is to hit them.”

Alex Young, a senior at Saint Xavier High School, has been advocating for the end of corporal punishment for five years, calling it a “barbaric” practice the disproportionately impacts the most vulnerable kids.

According to state data, of the 142 instances of corporal punishment during the 2019-20 school year, almost half involved a child with a disability. 

Recently, the Kentucky Board of Education voted to limit the use of corporal punishment in schools, specifically stating that students with disabilities, students facing housing insecurity or students in foster care can’t receive corporal punishment.

“The trusted relationships we need in schools are virtually impossible to form when the threat of violence against students exists in the form of paddling,” Young wrote in an op-ed published in the Courier Journal. “If we want students to respect and trust adults, hitting them under any circumstances is unequivocally the wrong answer.”

Other education-related bills:

HB 18 & HB 14 – Schools and teachers would be prohibited from classroom discussion of race, sex, or religion and would face discipline/fines for violating.

HB 66 – The state would eliminate half-day kindergarten programs and would invest strictly in full-day programs to help boost early education outcomes of Kentucky kids.

HB 31 – Schools would be prohibited from discriminating or disciplining a student based off of hair styles historically associated with race. 

HB 44 –  Local school district’s would be required to amend their attendance policies to include provisions for a student’s mental or behavioral health status.

HB 63 – Would require school boards to have armed resource officers in all Kentucky schools by August 2022

HB 67 – Would require high school curriculums to include the teaching of racism. 

HB 88 – Would require teaching about African-American and Native American history in middle and high school history courses.

HB 94 – Would include naloxone among the medications each school should have on hand to be administered by a trained employee if necessary.

Criminal Code

A Republican-led bill would increase penalties of child abuse in Kentucky if the child is under 12 years of age.

Under HB 263, an adult who causes physical injury, inflicts cruel punishment or confinement to a child under the age of 12, or a child who is physically or mentally disadvantaged, would  face a Class B felony in Kentucky, rather than Class C. People convicted of Class B felonies face 10 to 20 years of imprisonment.

There are 20 Republican sponsors on the bill, including Rep. C. Ed Massey of Boone County and Speaker of the House David W. Osborne of Oldham County. Neither of them responded to requests for an interview.

Other criminal code-related bills:

HB 292 – Would make it a crime to unlawfully store a firearm and establish elements of the crime for recklessly allowing access to an unsecured firearm by a minor.

SB 74 – Would require a court referral for truancy cases when there is no improvement within 30 days and require a court-designated worker to make a finding if diversion is failed due to lack of parental cooperation 

 

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Ky. suspicious child deaths rising as state investigation backlog grows Tuesday, Jan 18 2022 

The Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services was asked to investigate the deaths or near-death incidents of 208 children in fiscal year 2021 — 22% more cases of suspected abuse or neglect than the previous year. 

But how many were deemed to be the result of abuse or neglect is still unknown, because the state has only completed 73 investigations requested from July 2020-June 2021. The rest are part of a backlog that the state blames on bad timing for reporting requirements, according to the annual report of child fatalities and near-fatalities issued by the cabinet last year.

Even as child maltreatment reports have declined over the past five years, fatality and near-fatality reports have been on the rise.

Advocates say the COVID-19 pandemic has without a doubt created a slew of obstacles that have put already vulnerable children at an increased risk for severe abuse and neglect. State data show that most children who die or nearly die in Kentucky from abuse or neglect under suspicious circumstances are toddlers or infants. They’re disproportionately Black. And more than 70% were part of a family that had been assessed or investigated by the state.

“That tells me that if we had a better system, at least 70% of these children would not have died,” said Kentucky Youth Advocates executive director Terry Brooks. 

A combination of increased family stress, a decline in early warning systems and a mass exodus of state social workers during the pandemic has created an increasingly tragic situation for Kentucky’s most vulnerable children, Brooks said. The Department for Community Based Services lost over 600 social workers in the first nine months of 2021 alone.

Brooks said the backlog of pending investigations is a symptom of unmanageable workloads within child protection services, law enforcement and other agencies who play a role in these investigations.

“Those pending cases are a visceral reminder that the well-documented DCBS workforce issues — which began well before the pandemic — have consequences,” Brooks said. “And in this case, an inadequate staffing at hand for DCBS and those other sectors result in us having far too many questions and far too few answers when it comes to this tragic arena.”

The number of pending investigations in fiscal year 2021 means it’s not clear yet whether this trend of rising deaths among children due to abuse or neglect continues. Of the 208 fatality and near fatality cases accepted for investigation between July 2020 and June 2021, 65% are still pending. 

So far, the agency has concluded that six deaths were due to maltreatment in the most recent fiscal year.

Officials from the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services officials did not respond to requests for an interview or written questions.

In fiscal year 2020, which included July 2019 to June 2020, state investigations found that 25 children died from maltreatment. That was the highest number of abuse-related fatalities since 2012, and nearly 80% higher than the prior fiscal year.

Severity of abuse on the rise

For Dr. Melissa Currie, child abuse pediatrician at Norton Children’s Hospital and a member of the state’s child fatality review board since 2000, the increase in child fatalities means that early interventions aren’t happening.

“We’re seeing more severe abuse, including a recent spike in abusive head trauma,” she said. “We’ve had more torture cases this year than we’ve had in any previous year.”

According to Currie, the Pediatric Protection Specialists team at Norton Children’s has seen eight children who suffered abusive head trauma in the last month alone. They typically have about 25 cases a year.

Reports of child abuse have fallen more than 20% since fiscal year 2018, with a significant decrease in fiscal year 2021. But even with a drop in maltreatment allegations, the state still saw more reports of abuse-related deaths and near deaths.

What this says to advocates is that while fewer reports of maltreatment are coming in, abuse and neglect is still happening — and it’s leading to death or severe injury in more and more cases.

“I think that part of what we saw was a pretty significant decrease in cases being reported to CPS during the first year or so of the pandemic, because kids weren’t in school and they weren’t in daycare,” Dr. Currie said. “And those are the people who tend to report bruises and other signs of abuse.”

Five years of state data show that neglect continues to be the leading type of maltreatment in fatality and near-fatality investigations. Accidental overdoses account for the majority of neglect cases.

When it comes to physical abuse, which make up 40% of these investigations, almost all of the injuries are categorized as head trauma or battered-child syndrome.

Young, Black children disproportionately impacted

According to state data, more than half of the 355 children who died or nearly died from abuse or neglect over the last five years were 3 years old or younger. The majority — 142 children — were not yet a year old. 

While most of the children are white, Black children are disproportionately impacted by severe maltreatment. Since 2017, Black children accounted for 18% of the state’s fatality and near-fatality victims, but 9% of the population.

According to Janna Estep Jordan, director of operations and prevention education at Prevent Child Abuse Kentucky, Black children are more likely to experience poverty and other risk factors that correlate to higher rates of abuse. 

“We know there’s an over representation [of Black children] in the child welfare system, but we also know that child abuse crosses all socioeconomic status levels, all religions, all neighborhoods. No one is immune,” she said. “We’ve got to really do a better job of looking at our internal biases, as well as educating those around us when we’re looking to support families and children.”

Advocates say that when it comes to child abuse prevention, “one size doesn’t fit all” and that the solutions need to be diversified based on who is being served.

“If preventing child abuse requires a systemic response, and there’s a lack of trust in the systems, that’s a problem,” Brooks said. 

The pitfalls of Kentucky’s social services workforce

Over two-thirds of the Kentucky children who died or almost died from abuse in the last five years had prior involvement with child protective services. Of the 25 children whose deaths were attributed to maltreatment in fiscal year 2020, 19 of them already had contact with the system.

“What that tells you is this was not the first time that something bad happened,” Brooks said. “It says that because the workforce is not structured properly, we’re missing some cues.”

Between January and September of last year, over 600 social workers quit their job with the state, many citing low pay, crushing caseloads and intense stress. This has led to fewer workers available to investigate child abuse allegations and fewer people to support families and children who need it most. 

Gov. Andy Beshear announced in December that Kentucky social workers and family support staff would receive an immediate 10% raise. They also launched a pilot program to expedite the hiring process for qualified social workers and build the workforce back up.

“I know they are working very hard to try to change the culture within the institution, to attract new workers and retain the ones that we have,” Dr. Currie said. “But until that problem gets resolved, we’re not going to see the top quality CPS interventions that we want and need and that children are desperate for in the state of Kentucky.”

What needs to be done

Advocates say protecting children from abuse will take policy changes and financial investment from the Kentucky legislature.

In his budget proposal this week, Beshear announced plans to hire 350 more social workers and create a student loan forgiveness program to boost the state’s social worker staff. Kentucky’s Republican legislators’ proposal included plans to hire 200 more social workers and salary increases.

While bolstering the social services workforce and providing support for social workers should be a top priority for state leaders, advocates are also encouraging investment in community based programs outside of child protective services. 

“Most of these cases are 100% preventable,” Estep Jordan said. “True prevention happens when everyone’s involved.”

Advocates are also pushing for investments in community education so individuals know what to look for when it comes to child abuse and neglect.

“We cannot fall into the tendency to throw our hands up and go, ‘What a mess,’ or ‘That’s just Kentucky being Kentucky,’” Brooks said. “Our focus as a state has to be lasered on solutions.”

Contact Jasmine Demers at jdemers@kycir.org.

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More than two in five Black children living in poverty in Louisville Friday, Nov 12 2021 

More than one in five Kentucky children are growing up in poverty, but in the state’s most urban counties, Black and Latinx children are especially impacted.

According to data released Wednesday by Kentucky Youth Advocates, 205,000 children — more than 20% of the state’s youth population — live in a household that earns less than $26,000 a year for a family of four. And nearly half of Kentucky’s children are living in households with annual income below 200% of the federal poverty line. 

The commonwealth had the fourth-highest child poverty rate in the nation in 2019.

“What would happen if certain basketball teams in the commonwealth were rated in the bottom third of all Division I programs? We would not be very happy,” said Terry Brooks, KYA’s executive director. “And yet, that’s exactly where Kentucky kids are on a national basis.”

A deeper look reveals children of color are more vulnerable, especially in major metro areas. The data show that 42% of Black children in the state’s urban centers of Jefferson and Fayette Counties live in poverty. The same is true for Latinx children in Fayette County. 

That means a Black child in Louisville or Lexington is nearly four times as likely to be living in poverty than white children who live in the same areas. 

The high rate of poverty for Black and Latinx children who live in Jefferson and Fayette Counties experience is nearly the same as the overall child poverty rate in the state’s six poorest counties: Lee, Wolfe, McCreary, Owsley, Clay and Bell. All are in southeastern Kentucky.

“Individuals and children of color are faced with more significant barriers to housing, financial success, education at all levels, healthcare, employment and ultimately a bright future,” said  Shamitha Kuppala, a high school senior and mental health advocate in Louisville. “And these disproportionate obstacles create a cycle.”

While Kentucky’s overall child poverty rates have improved, dropping 5% since 2014, advocates said there continue to be significant racial disparities that need to be addressed statewide.

Brooks said decades of policies and practices have impacted the opportunities for families of color to earn higher wages, build equity and pass that financial success on to their children. Specific barriers include racial gaps in educational access and an overrepresentation of Black workers in low-wage jobs. These obstacles also lead to higher rates of mental health problems and emotional distress.

“All kids face a long climb in their journey to adulthood, but kids of color have to climb a steeper hill due to longstanding inequities and specific barriers based on their skin color or country of origin,” he said. “When we invest in what all children need and tailor additional support for children who face greater barriers, each Kentucky kid will have a brighter future.”

Given the cost of housing, food and transportation, most families need an income of at least twice the official federal poverty level to cover basic needs. In Kentucky, the median household income for Black families with children is $39,600, $45,600 for Latinx families, $41,200 for families of two or more races and $69,300 for white families.

And the pandemic hasn’t helped. 

According to the data, Kentucky’s Black families were more than twice as likely as white families to not be able to pay for housing during the first year of the pandemic. In addition, one in five children of color experienced food insecurity last year.

“We have to be intentional about this,” said state Senator Gerald Neal of Louisville. “This data collection is important. We must acknowledge the racial and class disparities and address them head on. And the legislature has a particular responsibility in that regard, in terms of how we do policy.”

Advocates say state- and federal-level change can address these systemic disparities, starting with policies that work to close income gaps, strengthen assistance programs for low-income families, invest in child care infrastructure and expand the federal Child Tax Credit.

Research conducted by the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.–based think tank, earlier this year found that expanding the Biden administration’s Child Tax Credit would decrease child poverty in a typical year by 40%.

“The significance of this data lies in one key fact, I would say, and that is that kids count,” Kuppala said. “Every single Kentuckian experiences childhood and we can’t let their potentials be diminished by externalities like location, like poor health care, or institutional inequities or race.”

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Youth suicides, self-harm on the rise in Louisville Friday, Oct 29 2021 

NOTE: If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one or would like emotional support, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Suicides by Jefferson County youth reached a decade high in 2021 as physicians across the country declare a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health. 

So far this year, 29 people aged 25 and under have died by suicide in Louisville — the highest number recorded for this age group since the county began keeping track in 2014. The youngest among them was a 12-year-old girl who died less than two months ago.

Young people of color are disproportionately represented. Of the 53 total deaths by suicide in this age group since the start of 2020, more than 40% of them were Black, Hispanic or Indigenous. In total, Jefferson County’s population is only 22% Black, 6% Hispanic and less than 1% Indigenous, compared to 71% white.

According to data from the Jefferson County Coroner’s Office obtained by KyCIR, the annual number of deaths by suicide for people 25 and under increased by more than 80% over the last eight years. 

Experts say the pandemic only exacerbated an already concerning trend in mental health issues for young people.

“Every single child in the world has at least one adverse childhood experience right now. And that is COVID,” said Dr. Katy Hopkins, medical director for the Pediatric Integrated Behavioral Health Program at Norton Children’s Hospital in Louisville.

Across all age groups, there have been 117 deaths by suicide in Louisville so far this year, with 41- to 55-year-olds, usually the most impacted age group, making up nearly a quarter of those cases.

Young people under the age of 25 represented a similar share of this year’s deaths — the highest proportion since at least 2014. That’s the only age group to experience an increase in suicides overall this year.

A national emergency

Norton Children’s is one of more than 220 American hospitals that joined physicians in declaring a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health. In a joint statement this month, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children’s Hospital Association said health professionals have witnessed “soaring rates of mental health challenges” among children, adolescents and their families since the pandemic began. 

According to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, self-harm and suicide cases increased 45% in the first half of this year among 5- to 17-year-olds nationwide, compared to the same period in 2019. The data also show emergency room visits for suspected suicide attempts were especially high among girls aged 12 to 17, rising by more than 50% in that time period.

Dr. Hopkins said she is noticing similar trends in Louisville. 

In 2020, Norton Healthcare emergency departments saw 25 pediatric patients for self-harm. This year so far, they’ve seen 95 — a nearly 300% increase.

On top of an overall rise in stress and isolation, Hopkins said young people don’t necessarily have access to the coping strategies they had prior to the pandemic, including time with their friends and other peer groups. 

“I certainly am getting more and more referrals for anxiety disorders and seeing more teenagers with concerns of depression,” she said. “Healthy development is hitched to a person’s ability to connect with people their own age and connect with peers in person. And that has really been limited over these past two years.”

Adults’ mental health and stress can also directly impact children, she said. When parents are dealing with economic instability, job loss or health concerns, as many have during the pandemic, it can affect the whole household. 

And many young people are struggling with the deaths of their caregivers due to COVID-19. 

A national study showed that more than 140,000 children lost either a primary or secondary caregiver since the pandemic began. Of those, 65% were Black, Hispanic, Native American or Asian. In Kentucky, at least 2,500 children are estimated to have lost a parent or grandparent who provided them with a home and basic needs, including love, security and daily care. 

“Addressing the loss that these children have experienced — and continue to experience — must be one of our top priorities, and it must be woven into all aspects of our emergency response, both now and in the post-pandemic future,” said CDC researcher Susan Hillis in a press release.

Louiville’s young people of color

In Louisville, COVID-19 is just one of the traumatic experiences young people, and especially young people of color, faced over the last two years. The police killing of Breonna Taylor brought national attention to the city and spurred months of protests against racism and police brutality, which experts say has significantly impacted the mental health of Black youth.

“We’ve been battling a triple pandemic in Louisville,” Dr. Hopkins said. “We have the pandemic of COVID. We have a pandemic of a racial reckoning that has been a long time coming in our community that we really have needed to face for a long time. And then we have the aftereffect of both of those things, which is the mental health issues.”

Of the youth under 25 who died by suicide in Louisville since 2020, 40% were people of color — 28% Black, 8% Hispanic and 4% Indigenous.

“This is an alarming statistic, and something that we should definitely be paying attention to,” said Steven Kniffley, clinical psychologist and chief diversity officer at Spalding University.

According to Kniffley, COVID-19 has “put on center stage” the longstanding racism and discrimination experienced by people of color that extends to housing, the workplace and education. In Louisville, and across the country, communities of color are also more heavily burdened by illness and death caused by COVID-19.

The increased isolation caused by the pandemic, Kniffley said, combined with instances of police brutality and racism in Louisville over the past two years, has been a breeding ground for internalized racial trauma in black communities specifically. 

“As they witness these experiences of racism and discrimination, our Black and brown youth have had no place to have conversations about what this means for them and what this means for their safety and well-being as youth in our country,” he said.

As the leader of Spalding’s Collective Care Center, one of the nation’s only behavioral health clinics to specialize in treating race-based trauma and stress, Kniffley said experiences of racism and discrimination can often lead to internalized hatred and low self-worth, contributing to rising suicide rates. 

For the Black community specifically, the biggest increase has been among males.

“What we know is in the last 20 years, suicides have quadrupled for Black males,” he said. “And now suicide is the third leading cause of death for Black males across the lifespan.”

Of the young Black people who died by suicide in Louisville this year, all but one were males. 

For Kniffley, the key to reducing suicide attempts in young people is education and resources. Louisville, like the rest of the country, has a shortage of psychologists, and especially psychologists of color. 

“Here in the city of Louisville, I’m one of very few child psychologists and maybe the only child psychologist that is a Black male,” he said. “So it is very hard for us to access services, especially for those folks that look like us.”

If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one or would like emotional support, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or 1-888-628-9454 for Spanish speakers. Here are some additional resources:

Youth: Ways to take care of yourself (National Suicide Prevention Hotline)

Local resources:

Spalding University’s Collective Care Center – 502-792-7011 – Offers free therapy for those who have experienced race-based trauma

Mental Health LouSearch a database of mental wellness providers in Louisville

National Alliance on Mental Illness LouisvilleFind support groups, local emergency resources and therapy options.

WAVE-3 “It’s Your Life” Youth Help Line – (866) 589-8727 – Talk to specially trained peer counselors

YMCA Safe Place Services – (502) 635-5233 – A network of community partners where teens can go to get help

Crisis text line – Text HOME to 741741

The post Youth suicides, self-harm on the rise in Louisville appeared first on Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

Ky. Has Fourth-Highest Rate of Kids Hospitalized With COVID-19 Friday, Sep 24 2021 

Kentucky has the fourth-highest rate in the nation of children hospitalized with COVID-19 for the month of September, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

So far this month, the state has recorded over 26,000 cases in kids 18 and under and an average of 59 children hospitalized each day, making it the most dangerous month for children since the pandemic began. Only Ohio, Montana and Alabama had higher hospitalization rates so far this month. 

The federal data include confirmed and suspected cases, as well as newborns and patients in observation beds. These daily totals are consistently higher than those reported by the state.

The COVID-19 surge coincided with a return to school in August. While Kentucky lawmakers repealed the mask mandate issued for public schools earlier this month, most school districts have kept their mandates in place.

“This surge is affecting children in larger numbers than we have ever seen in this whole pandemic,” said Dr. Lindsay Ragsdale, director of UK HealthCare’s pediatric advanced care team. “We have seen more kids come to Kentucky Children’s Hospital with COVID positive tests and with symptoms. They do seem to have more symptoms this go round, because the Delta variant is more contagious.”

The previous peak among children was back in January, with close to 13,000 cases that month. But like other age groups, pediatric cases began to rise dramatically as the delta variant became the state’s dominant strain. By August, cases had doubled to nearly 25,000 — which is more cases than the previous six months combined. 

Since the pandemic began, four Kentucky children have died from COVID-19 — two of which have occurred in just the last two weeks, according to state data.

Hospital admissions for children have increased by nearly 200% since July. Pediatricians from the state’s children’s hospitals say that while their ICUs have been fuller than ever before during the pandemic, they are working to accommodate as many children as they can and haven’t had to turn anyone away yet.

“[Wednesday] morning, we had 21 kids at Norton Children’s Hospital hospitalized with a positive COVID-19 test. That’s a lot,” said Dr. Kris Bryant, pediatric infectious diseases physician with Norton Children’s and the University of Louisville. “About a quarter of them are in the ICU. If you go back to June, we had many days when we had no children in the hospital with COVID-19. So it’s quite a change. But I really think that’s because the number of cases in the community has increased.”

As the current surge continues, there is also concern that pediatric care units could get too full, making it difficult for children to be seen for non-covid illnesses. As local physicians brace for the upcoming flu season, they are also seeing an unusually early spike in respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV. This cold-like illness is common, and most kids recover in a week or two, but RSV can also lead to much more severe illnesses such as bronchiolitis and pneumonia.

Bryant said that with the rise in transmission, she is also seeing more cases of Multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children. According to the CDC, there have been over 4,600 patients in the U.S. diagnosed with MIS-C, a potentially life-threatening inflammation of internal organs that follows COVID-19 infection, and the majority have been Black or Hispanic children. There had been fewer than 100 cases reported in Kentucky as of August 27.

In addition to the more transmissible delta variant, local experts say the rise in COVID-19 among kids could also be attributed to increased activity and interaction, whether through school, family gatherings or community events. But the key, they say, is vaccinations.

“I think the most important thing for people to know is that COVID-19 is a vaccine-preventable disease in kids 12 and older. We have a safe and effective and available vaccine to prevent COVID-19,” Bryant said. 

About 47% of Kentucky’s 12 to 17 year-olds have received their first dose, according to the state’s COVID data, which doesn’t say how many have been fully vaccinated. Pfizer announced earlier this week that its COVID-19 vaccine has proven effective in 5 to 11 year-olds and is now just waiting for FDA approval before it can be distributed widely. Health care officials say the vaccine could be available for Kentucky’s younger children as soon as Halloween.

Contact Jasmine Demers at jdemers@kycir.org.

The post Ky. Has Fourth-Highest Rate of Kids Hospitalized With COVID-19 appeared first on Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

‘Who Would Miss Me?’ Drugs Increasingly Killing Young Kentuckians In Pandemic Monday, Aug 23 2021 

J. Tyler Franklin

The Kentucky State Capitol on 4/9/20, lit up green in memory of those who died from COVID-19.

Resources: Kentuckians can call 1-833-8KY-HELP (1-833-859-4357) to speak with a specialist about substance use treatment options and available resources. To find openings at addiction treatment facilities, you can also visit www.FindHelpNowKY.org.

Isabell Slusher knows how close she came to becoming a statistic in the opioid epidemic.

She started using heroin when she was 18. And last year, the now 24-year-old was forced into isolation during the global COVID-19 pandemic, a dangerous place to be for someone with a substance use disorder. 

“As addicts, you already isolate yourself. And then when the pandemic hit, you’re then being forced to not be around your loved ones,” Slusher said. “You do start to get lonely. What better thing to do than just lay around and get as high as you can get?”

She got so depressed that she felt her life had no purpose, and her thoughts turned hopeless.

“Who would even know I was gone? Who would miss me?”

Slusher entered treatment last November, and hasn’t used drugs since. But many young people never made it to recovery in 2020.  

Young Kentuckians experienced the highest increase in drug overdose deaths last year, according to the state’s overdose fatality report released this month. The report showed increases in mortality across all age groups, and overdose deaths grew overall by 49%. But the jump for young people was much higher: 127 people aged 15-24, 90% more overdose deaths than the previous year.

Total overdose rates had been climbing steadily over the last decade, increasing by 95% since 2010. But by 2018, those numbers were starting to trend down — at least until 2020 hit.

The exact cause of the increase is unclear, but it’s possible that young people may be dealing with unique challenges during the pandemic.

“They’re already dealing with a lot of uncertainty and just figuring out life,” said Julie Duvall, CEO of Adult and Teen Challenge of Kentucky. “Their peer groups are so important to them and all of that has kind of been disrupted.”

Duvall also said drug use among young people can be misinterpreted as rebellion or behavioral issues instead of a deeper problem.

“We always ask when people come in as part of our intake what drove them to begin experimenting and almost always it’s coping with life,” she said. “These are people that need compassion and healing, not people that need judgment and are just acting out.”

‘Suffering in isolation’

State records show that over the last five years, increases or decreases in overdose deaths have correlated with the number of people reaching out for help and seeking emergency care. But in 2020, emergency admissions didn’t keep pace. 

In 2020, emergency department visits for nonfatal drug overdoses increased statewide by just 13%, compared to the 49% increase in total overdose deaths, according to the Kentucky Injury Prevention and Research Center. For young people, the discrepancy is even wider — emergency room visits increased by 10.5% while overdose deaths jumped by 90%.

And Duvall says her treatment program hasn’t seen an increase in admissions.

“I see the statistics and hear that overdoses are increasing and drug use is increasing, but they’re not calling us,” Duvall said. “So, what that tells me is they’re suffering in isolation at home or wherever they are and not reaching out for help.”

Duvall said the restrictions and closures during the pandemic made the process of finding an open bed at a recovery facility even more daunting.

Slusher came into treatment through a court order. She was arrested for violating her federal probation and a judge sent her to Adult and Teen Challenge of Kentucky.

“I think maybe if I didn’t get locked up that day, I know that I probably wouldn’t be here,” she said.”

Slusher started using drugs after her 21-year-old sister died from an overdose six years ago. From that point on, she said she was in and out of jail and began selling drugs — all while experiencing an array of sexual, physical and emotional abuse.

Her addiction caused her to push her family away and the pandemic made that even easier, Slusher said. 

“I didn’t want any relationship with my family,” she said. “They were a nuisance to my life because they wanted better for me.”

Slusher said she still has a lot of work to do to earn back her family’s trust, including her 6-year-old son, but she’s dedicated to rebuilding those relationships.

Courtney Duerksen also felt the impact of that isolation. Duerksen, 24, is in treatment with Slusher.

“There have definitely been times where I would take a lot of pills and just not really care. I didn’t care if I woke up or not,” she said.

Now five months into recovery, Duerksen has one piece of advice for anyone struggling with substance use:

“Make sure that you’re reaching out if you need help. Make sure you’re talking to someone,” she said. “Because that’s one thing that I didn’t do. I isolated to the fullest. And if I needed help, I didn’t call anyone.”

Drug Lethality

While the pandemic likely had an impact on the number of people who sought emergency care or other recovery resources, the lethality of the drug supply also plays a part. 

Dana Quesinberry, public health policy and program evaluator for the Kentucky Injury Prevention Research Center, said the opioid epidemic started in the 1990s with primarily prescription opioids. Then heroin was the dominant drug. Since even before the pandemic began, it switched to fentanyl, a much more fatal substance.

“We do know that mortality was increasing in the fourth quarter of 2019, prior to the impact of the pandemic,” she said. “In some ways that makes a tremendous amount of sense, because of the lethality of fentanyl in comparison to heroin and prescription opioids.”

Fentanyl was detected in approximately 71% of all overdose deaths in Kentucky last year.

“It is disheartening. I won’t tell you that it’s not,” Quesinberry said. “Substance use in general has always been something of a whack-a-mole problem. You think you have a particular substance knocked out, either through prevention or law enforcement interventions. And then something else pops up.”

Upward trend continues in 2021

In total, 1,964 people died of a drug overdose in Kentucky last year, about 29% of whom were 35 to 44 years old. Kentucky had the third-highest increase of overdose deaths in the nation in 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

In the United States, more than 94,000 people died from drug overdose last year— the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period.

And it seems to be getting even worse this year, according to Quesinberry. 

“There had been a hope … that once vaccines became available and we’re reintegrating our society that we would see a decline in overdose deaths, and we are not seeing that.”

Quesinberry said the goal for experts and advocates is to turn the data into actionable steps for prevention and harm reduction strategies. If experts and advocates know they’re seeing larger increases in younger people, they can figure out how to approach the problem differently for those age groups and be hopefully more effective in their prevention efforts.

And while the data is important, Quesinberry said it’s about more than just numbers.

“Every person who has died, every person who has had a non-fatal overdose, every person who has suffered with substance use disorder is somebody’s parent, somebody’s child, somebody’s brother, sister, coworker, neighbor,” she said. “That’s why prevention and harm reduction services and support for them are very important.”

Jasmine Demers is a Report for America corps member. Contact Jasmine at 502.814.6547 or jdemers@kycir.org.

The post ‘Who Would Miss Me?’ Drugs Increasingly Killing Young Kentuckians In Pandemic appeared first on Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

‘Supposed To Care’: Absentee Child Advocates Bring Calls For Oversight Tuesday, Jun 1 2021 

Trinitii Puente

Trinitii Puente appears with her family at the hearing for the adoption of two children.

Trinitii Puente became a foster parent because she believes every child deserves to feel loved. It’s a lesson from her grandmother, who grew up in an orphanage and once confessed that she hadn’t felt loved until she was in her 70s. 

Puente, a 49-year-old in Grayson County, has fostered a dozen children and adopted eight over more than a decade. Every child is unique, and so are their legal cases. Puente first attended her foster children’s court hearings in 2018, when Kentucky passed a law affording more participation for foster parents in court. She was aghast as decisions were made that she thought reflected basic misunderstandings of the cases of two boys she was fostering. 

In Puente’s view, no one seemed to be advocating for the children themselves — not even their legal advocate known as a guardian ad litem, or GAL. 

According to state law, GALs are lawyers who fairly and neutrally “advocate for the client’s best interest” so a judge can make informed decisions about the child’s welfare. But Puente said the GAL, a local attorney appointed by the judge, never met or spoke with her and the kids.

“He only knew what the social worker was reporting,” she said of the attorney, who has since died. “How can you advocate for the best interest of the child if you’ve never met them?”

Absentee GALs are a chronic issue across the state, according to interviews with foster parents, policymakers, advocates, biological parents, and guardians ad litem themselves. State law dictates that GALs are paid a flat rate that many say doesn’t come close to compensating them for their time. Because their work is overseen by local judges, there is no single agency upholding standards. 

“We’ve got a system with a perverse incentive: not that the client is appropriately represented but that the judge is happy with your participation in the system,” said state Sen. Chris McDaniel, a Republican from northern Kentucky. 

An adoptive parent, McDaniel became interested in reforming the guardian ad litem program when he noticed GALs would sometimes miss his own children’s court hearings. “We have no oversight whatsoever of them,” he added.

GALs who work in family courts are also now to attend at least four hours of training every two years or lose the chance to serve. Many counties have started mandatory trainings, although some worry new requirements will inadvertently create new barriers for would-be advocates in counties with GAL shortages. 

Foster parents say the current scheme accelerates their burnout and their grievances against the system, driving away quality caregivers. Even more dire, shortcomings in the GAL apparatus can leave children without an advocate in court decisions that shape their futures.

“It’s traumatic,” said Emma Rose Lyons, a Louisville foster parent whose foster children were shuffled between GALs she described as ineffectual. “The GAL is supposed to care. But it felt like nobody cared about them.”

Lot of work for the money

In Kentucky, guardians ad litem represent children in cases that, among other matters, involve dependency, neglect and abuse; termination of parental rights; and adoption. GALs typically operate outside the public eye, since juvenile cases are confidential. 

The GAL is supposed to have conversations with the child, their foster parents, family members, school staff, social workers, and the attorneys for the biological parents. They’re also to consult with medical records, school reports, and social worker evaluations. Then they appear before a judge as an unbiased advocate for the child’s interests. 

By law, GALs reimbursed by the state are paid a maximum of only $500 per case, and only $250 in district court cases involving dependency, abuse, and neglect — a flat fee, whether the case lasts a few months or more than a decade. 

“It’s not enough, if you want people to do real work on the case,” said Beverly “Boo” Shea, a Richmond-based lawyer and guardian ad litem with the Appalachian Research and Defense Fund of Kentucky. “With the pay schedule we have here, you’re going to get somebody who is either very dedicated to the work or somebody who doesn’t care.”

Shea previously worked as a GAL in Hawaii, where lawyers can make up to $3,000 before court disposition and up to $1,000 afterward. The judge also has discretion there to pay even more if warranted. 

In Kentucky, the maximum payment for GAL work hasn’t been increased in more than 20 years, and it’s the same no matter how many children there are in a case. In some rural counties, the court relies on a few attorneys. Although the legal profession in general continues to be male-dominated, Kentucky’s GALs are predominantly female. 

As the number of children in foster care has increased, the cost to taxpayers of Kentucky’s GAL reimbursements has risen too, according to a 2019 audit from the Finance and Administration Cabinet. 

Until recently, the state data didn’t differentiate between GALs and court-appointed attorneys for adults. Between 2010 and 2018, state spending on both categories of fees rose about 30%, according to the audit. 

In 2020, the state paid a total of $4.8 million to GALs, according to a list of invoices obtained by KyCIR. Only a handful of GALs in Kentucky bill enough to earn a living off this work alone. The median number of billings per attorney was 10, worth an average total of $4,720 a year.

The state’s top biller is Kimberly Frost, city attorney in Williamsburg and a former district judge. As a young lawyer, Frost decided to become a GAL because the cases were plentiful, and other lawyers didn’t want to take them. That’s still true, she said, in no small part because of the gap between compensation and the effort needed to do a good job.  

“If you work 25 hours, you don’t get to bill every hour you’ve worked…. so a lot of attorneys won’t take juvenile cases,” Frost said. “If I go to court six times, an hour each time — if the fee is $250, you get only $42 per hour. That’s in addition to time talking to social workers, to whoever has custody, to therapists, to doctors, to reviewing documents.”

Frost received $65,550 in 2020 from a total of 135 invoices — nearly all the invoices anyone billed last year in Whitley County and McCreary County.

In both counties, only two or three lawyers serve as GALs for juveniles because the other eligible attorneys pursue “other more lucrative work” or have a conflict of interest, Frost said.

Due to a quirk in Kentucky’s local courts, the same work can bring half the pay in some counties. The law says dependency, neglect, and abuse cases in family court pay $500, while cases in district courts are capped at only $250. 

Forty-eight of Kentucky’s 120 counties do not have a family court, according to the Administrative Office of Courts, which means payments in those counties would be capped at $250. Since 2018, district court judges in more than two dozen counties have ruled the statute unconstitutional, bumping those counties into the $500 payments. But some counties are stuck at $250. 

Roughly 18% of all dependency, neglect, and abuse cases with GALs in 2020 were in district court, according to state data.

GALs in the headlines

The little known work of guardians ad litem grabbed headlines last year when Dawn Gentry, a Kenton County family court judge, was removed from the bench by the state body that disciplines judges after a lengthy investigation into her misconduct. Much of the impropriety involved GALs, including findings that Gentry hired a woman to a local GAL panel in exchange for political support from her well-connected husband, and that she coerced members of that panel to support her campaign. 

To advocates for GAL reform, the case exemplified the systemic pitfalls that make the guardian ad litem program vulnerable to abuse.

State Sen. McDaniel, a Republican from Kenton County, sponsored a bill in 2019 that would create an independent state agency to oversee GAL appointments and services. The bill, which passed the state Senate but died in the House, was meant to address the “wholly inappropriate interdependency” between judges and GALs, McDaniel said. 

Since there is no single state agency to oversee appointments and policies, various branches of state and local government work “with little or no coordination,” the 2019 audit said. The critique mirrors problems identified decades earlier in a 1998 report about the lack of coordination in the state’s GAL system.

Kristie Goff, a Pikeville-based attorney with AppalReD Legal Aid, has worked individual cases that lasted more than a decade, from when a child was five until they aged out of the system. Goff thinks the maximum fee is inadequate, and she knows some GALs are phoning in the work. Still, she doubts that new Frankfort-based bureaucracy is the best solution to the problem. Instead, she wants judges to hold them accountable. 

“I don’t like the idea about a centralized agency coming in from the outside,” she said. “It’s the judge’s responsibility to oversee the guardians ad litem on their list. If [GALs] are not doing their job, the judge should be holding them accountable.”

Seeking more engagement

Christa Moxon became a licensed foster parent because she felt called by God to care for the vulnerable. She remembers the day when state social workers called and told her there was a baby at the hospital waiting for her as “exciting and crazy.” 

The baby was beautiful, and just five days old. Her case was complicated. Moxon and her husband, who live in Louisville, asked lots of questions about the baby’s situation, including if and when she might be reunited with her mother. Social workers gave them conflicting answers. 

Submitted

Christa and Josh Moxon and their biological child

The Moxons figured they’d get more clarity at the court hearings held to discuss the status of the baby child. The foster parents said they were initially told by the social workers not to attend. They attended anyway, but were then told they shouldn’t speak. Court involved high-stakes decisions about the child’s future. To the Moxons, it appeared no one was advocating for the child herself.

In an interview last year, Nathan Goins, family court liaison for the Administrative Office of the Court’s Department of Family and Juvenile Services, acknowledged that GALs will sometimes “go into autopilot” at the end of a case. But judges want to know what work their GALs are — or are not — performing for their clients, Goins said. 

“No judge is like, ‘Oh yeah, my GAL doesn’t talk to the kids and I’m fine with that,’” Goins said. “If that comes out, they have a stern talking to with the attorney, and they’ll take the attorney off the list.”

That decision, though, is largely at the discretion of an individual judge. Representatives from the AOC recommend that foster parents talk to their state social worker, then the county clerk, and then the judge directly if they have questions or concerns about their GAL.

The lack of information goes both ways at times, according to Frost, the GAL in Williamsburg. She said she works directly through the social worker in many cases where she isn’t even provided the foster parent’s name. 

State regulations for social workers instruct them to arrange private meetings between the GAL and the child “if requested by the GAL.”

Moxon said she never met with or even heard from her foster child’s GAL; she learned their  name only after pressing social workers for it, three months into the case.

Moxon was so dejected by her experience with state bureaucracy that she’s not certain if she’ll ever foster again.

“It’s a very broken system,” she said. “The kids get the short end of the stick.”

The post ‘Supposed To Care’: Absentee Child Advocates Bring Calls For Oversight appeared first on Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

Kentucky’s Budget Shrank. These Informal Foster Parents Were Left With Nothing Monday, Apr 5 2021 

Natasha King stands center and her grandchildren sit behind her

J. Tyler Franklin

Natasha King, center, is raising her two grandchildren through kinship care with very little financial help from the state.

Natasha King thought it would be temporary, just a few months. 

When the state called in 2013 and asked if she could parent her two grandchildren, she didn’t hesitate to take in the kids she loved more than anything in the world. Their mother’s drug problems had gone from bad to worse, and their father had addiction issues of his own. 

King, a 46-year-old nursing assistant in Lexington, Kentucky, is still the primary caretaker of her grandchildren, now 12 and 13 years old. Although she had been working two jobs to support her family, she had to quit one during the pandemic to guide the kids through online learning. 

King receives just $225 each month in public aid through the Kentucky Transitional Assistance Program, or KTAP. 

She could be receiving more. There used to be a state program for grandparents and other relatives who are raising children that have suffered abuse and neglect. Participation in this program would nearly triple the support King receives. 

But that program was closed to new families in early 2013, just months before King took in her grandchildren. In 2019, pressured by a federal court decision, Kentucky started paying some relative caregivers under a new program. But the new program wasn’t retroactive. King’s application was rejected.

“It’s been scary,” said King, who’s worked 12-hour shifts at the hospital since recovering from a bout with COVID-19. “I have guardianship. I make their decisions. I basically just don’t get any benefits for them.”

Kentucky is an epicenter of America’s “hidden foster care” system, a gray area in which caregivers shoulder the many burdens of parenting with few of the supports afforded to licensed foster parents. The phrase, coined in a recent legal journal by University of South Carolina professor Josh Gupta-Kagan, describes any instance where child protection agencies shift the physical custody of children without relying on a court-sanctioned removal into foster care. 

From the perspective of the state, kinship care is a win-win: research shows that children tend to do better in the homes of people they know than with strangers. And while licensed foster parents can receive north of $1,000 per month for the most high-needs children, relative caregivers are inexpensive: informal placements with kin yield little or even no financial support.

For kinship caregivers, the status quo is fraught with problems the pandemic has exposed and exacerbated. Many feel intense social isolation and a lack of support from the state’s dizzying patchwork of social services. They’re also aggrieved that children must spend time in state custody for their relatives to qualify for some public benefits, a quirk that feels cruel and perverse to those already sacrificing. 

Since most kinship caregivers in Kentucky are grandparents, kinship care often involves cutting into retirement savings or Social Security benefits. Some relative caregivers are mired in poverty. Others are mulling bankruptcy. 

The situation is most dire for caregivers like King who took in children between 2013 and 2019, when one program was closed and another was opened only to families whose children were in state custody. Stuck in this gap, some kinship caregivers feel they’ve been all but abandoned. 

Kentucky’s ever-shifting landscape of support for relatives is confusing to caregivers and even to child welfare professionals. Relatives who call the state’s kinship support hotline say they often receive different answers depending on who picks up the phone. 

“It’s crazy the amount of misinformation floating around Kentucky,” said Shannon Moody, senior policy director at Kentucky Youth Advocates, a Louisville-based nonprofit. “Workers don’t even know sometimes what the new program is called, or what’s available to relatives.” 

Coronavirus Stresses Caregivers 

A growing body of research suggests that children placed with kin experience more stability and fewer behavioral challenges than those living with non-relatives. These children are also less likely to be removed from their homes again once they return. 

In the early 2010s, the number of children in the Kinship Care Program peaked around 11,700. The number suggests far more Kentucky children were in hidden foster care than were in the official placements tracked by federal data. 

a graphic displaying the number of foster youth living with relaties

One of every 13 children in Kentucky is being raised by a relative who isn’t their biological parent, according to estimates from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. That rate of kinship care is one of the highest in the U.S., totaling some 77,000 children. 

Since last year, the coronavirus pandemic has strained these kinship caregivers. Surveys conducted in August by Kentucky Youth Advocates found that a majority needed more financial support than before the pandemic, while four in 10 needed more emotional support.

Older kinship caregivers are also more susceptible to serious complications from the coronavirus. That poses a risk to the children who may not have other relatives to rely on in a crisis. 

“I’m the only one these kids got. I got to keep myself together,” said Patty McClanahan, a 64-year-old grandmother raising six grandchildren on her own in Richmond. 

Some caregivers want to stay at home to stay safe from COVID-19 and watch the children, many of whom are still participating in school online. But they need to work and find child care, which is both expensive and a coronavirus risk.  

If she gets sick, McClanahan worries her grandchildren would end up in the sort of legal trouble that has tripped up so many others in her community.  “Everything I’ve done to keep them out of the system would be in vain,” she said. “That’s a big worry. I think about that all the time.”

Confusing Requirements, Inadequate Pay

A timeline of changes in the kinship care system in KentuckyAnne Polston and her husband took in their eldest grandchild more than a decade ago. They were offered payments under the Kinship Care Program. But, at the time, the family declined — they didn’t think they’d need the help. 

“Because I was only taking one child, and I was working, I said if I couldn’t care for them on my own, we shouldn’t take them in,” said Polston, who lives in Casey County.

Back then, Kentucky’s offer for caregivers like Polston — the Kinship Care Program, which provided $300 per child, per month — was well below the monthly rate the state offered to its licensed foster parents. Compared to other states, though, the program was generous. Several states don’t provide any financial support to relatives who are not licensed foster parents. Many others offer what’s called a “child-only” welfare payment that in some places amounts to less than $100 per month. 

When Polston took in more grandchildren six years ago, she decided she wanted the Kinship Care payments from the state. But by then, the program had been closed to new families. 

The state froze the Kinship Care Program in 2013, citing a budget shortfall of $87 million.

“I was madder than a hatter,” recalled Polston, 53. “I know the government hurts for money. But speaking as a family of six, we hurt for money too.”

Many Kentucky relative caregivers considered the Kinship Care Program workable: a small but reliable monthly payment that came without the scrutiny of licensed foster care. Those relatives in the Kinship Care Program before 2013 have continued to receive $300 per month until the child turns 18. By 2019, the program was supporting around 5,000 children, a figure that has shrunk every year.

The state created a new path to funding for relatives in 2019: becoming approved foster parents, though that plan has created new confusion. For the thousands who agreed to take custody in that half-decade between programs, assistance has been minimal. 

A spokesperson for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services did not answer emailed questions about whether the new policies are too confusing for caregivers and state workers, or what financial assistance might be available to relative caregivers stuck in the gap between 2013 and 2019. “Across the commonwealth, relatives and fictive kin are unsung heroes,” the spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement. “We continue to assure that staff are provided with extensive training in order to meet the unique needs of relative caregivers while continuing to expand services available to them.” 

Youth advocates want the state to fund the families who missed out so they can focus on caregiving, particularly during the coronavirus crisis. But that’s expensive, and politically formidable. Re-opening the Kinship Care Program to additional families could cost tens of millions each year.

Proponents of paying kinship caregivers less than foster parents point out that they receive fewer trainings and, some argue, they simply need less financial incentive to take in a child they already know.

Relatives outside the foster care system are eligible for some safety net benefits, including food stamps and the state’s child health insurance program. Those who can demonstrate serious financial need can get a monthly payment under the Kentucky Transitional Assistance Program, or KTAP, the state’s welfare program. That starts at $186 a month per child. 

Leanne Barton, 56, is raising her two grandchildren in Bourbon County. Due to the pandemic, she spends most of her time in close proximity to her grandkids, monitoring their schoolwork and listening in on their online classes. Like thousands of her peers, she’s struggling on $186 per month for the children she is raising and protecting from foster care. But despite her hardship, she said, “I didn’t do this because it was more money.

“I do it for the kids.”

Court Ruled Unequal Benefits Were Illegal

With its support for hidden foster care gutted after the 2013 moratorium on the Kinship Care Program, Kentucky faced pressure to diminish the disparities between relative caregivers and foster parents.

Lawyers and advocates representing kinship caregivers took the state to federal court, arguing their clients had been relegated to second-class status. Previous court battles established that if relatives are licensed as foster parents, states must pay them the same rate they would any other licensed home. But federal policies allow states to place kids with kin by simply “approving” them, a process that involves a background check but less training. 

D.O. v Glisson would finally test what many national child welfare observers bemoaned as a double standard. The plaintiff, a great-aunt raising two young boys, argued she was due payments from the state’s Cabinet for Health and Family Services. In 2017, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Deborah Cook ruled that Kentucky had to pay relative caregivers it approved as foster parents on the same basis as licensed foster parents. “[I]f Kentucky is denying benefits because the aunt is related to the children, it is violating federal law,” Cook wrote.

Two years later, Kentucky legislators created a relative payment structure. At a 2019 hearing in support of the bill, state Rep. Chris Fugate, a Republican from Perry County in the southeastern corner of the state, said the new program “basically reinstitutes [the] Kentucky Kinship Care Program” that was stopped in 2013.

But critics of the plan describe it as a sort of Kinship Care-lite — a restrictive and overly complicated scheme that formalizes the second-class status of kin instead of ending it. 

More Money Available — If You Give Up Custody

Under the new plan, relative caregivers can get approved as a “child-specific foster parent.” The state retains custody of the child and the relative caregiver receives $6 per day while awaiting approval and $11.51 once approved. It’s slightly more than the old Kinship Care Program, but still significantly less than what’s received by licensed foster parents raising children they aren’t related to — which starts at $24.10 per child, per day. It’s also a fraction of what federal estimates say a middle-income family actually spends per child.

A bill passed by the Kentucky legislature last week requires kinship caregivers receive a “detailed placement packet” listing supports available to kinship caregivers, including a notification form explaining the process of becoming a child-specific foster home. State rules already require social workers to discuss service and benefit options with families, but the bill’s proponents say new requirements would clarify a process that has confused many families.

Significantly, the new program excludes relative caregivers who immediately take custody of a child, meaning a relative willing to take in a child might have to first let them be placed with strangers in foster care. 

For Susan Sanchez, a Louisville grandmother raising her 14-year-old grandson, the idea that she would have had to give up her grandson to be able to afford raising him was unacceptable. 

As a result of emotional and physical abuse from childhood, her grandson suffers from severe anxiety, she said. He can’t see a movie in a public theater, let alone ride a public bus without risk of a panic attack. Foster care wasn’t an option. “If my grandson had to go into foster care in order for me to get him, I would have made such a bucket of myself downtown in the courthouse that they probably would’ve arrested me,” she said. 

Sanchez receives some support from the KTAP benefits program, but no child support from the boy’s parents or kinship payments. She took in her grandson just weeks after the Kinship Care Program was closed, in 2013, and she’s received nothing from the new relative care program established in 2019. 

Had she been a licensed foster parent, Sanchez could have received more than $60,000 over the last eight years. Sometimes she thinks about how that money could’ve changed things. Maybe she would’ve gotten her grandson into youth sports, or she would’ve bought a car so he could explore his hometown. 

“I have five credit cards I maxed out and haven’t been able to pay on in over six years,” Sanchez said. “We take our family members out of love, not for financial gain.”

‘Robbing Peter to pay Paul’

It’s unknown exactly how many children live in kinship placements in Kentucky because the state isn’t releasing data on the status of thousands of abused or neglected children who were removed from the home of their biological parents, despite a state law that requires the data be kept. In September, DCBS released a report with partial data on kinship placements, and state officials said in interviews they need more time to gather and analyze additional data because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The data that is available suggests that in the years since Kentucky stopped giving money to caregivers in informal placements, the number of youth in foster care living with relatives increased dramatically. According to federal data, 12% of Kentucky foster youth lived with relatives in 2019. That’s well below the national average of 31%, but four times the proportion who lived with kin in 2015. 

Barry Shrout is proud of his four granddaughters, ages 7 to 14. He leaps at every chance to brag about them: the As on their report cards, their achievements in cheerleading and basketball, their quick wits and good spirits.

Shrout, a 63-year-old in Maysville who runs a small delivery service, took in his eldest granddaughter a decade ago, when her parents were in the throes of drug abuse and trouble with the law. He got custody of the other three more than a year ago.

Like a lot of kinship caregivers, Shrout is confused why he’s being paid less than foster parents for the same work. “I’m doing the same thing with my children as a foster parent is,” he said. 

He also gets more money for one child than the others, an example of how the ever-changing policies can create unequal circumstances within a single family. 

Each month, Shrout receives a total of just $562 in state support: kinship care payments for his eldest granddaughter, and KTAP for the other three. 

With their other expenses, he said it isn’t enough to take his four grandchildren to McDonald’s.

“Our circumstances aren’t great,” said Shrout. “I’m in the situation where I’m robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

Although Shrout could receive hundreds more dollars as a licensed foster parent through the 2019 program, he doesn’t think the tradeoff is worth the risks, even with his hardships. “I want to give them the best life that I can give them,” he said. “I know some parents out there don’t care. But I’m one of them that does.”

Contact Graham Ambrose at gambrose@kycir.org.

This story was co-published with The Imprint, a daily news publication dedicated to rigorous, in-depth journalism focused on families and the systems that impact their lives.

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