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Fewer Kentucky children are being reunited with their parents

A chart showing a decline in foster care reunifications.
Annie E. Casey Foundation
Kids Count
Foster care reunifications are declining in Kentucky.

The rate of children in Kentucky’s foster care system who are reunited with their families has been steadily declining for years — and now it’s the lowest it’s been in over a decade.

Less than a third of children exiting foster care were reunified with their parent or primary caretaker between 2020 and 2022, according to data from Kentucky Youth Advocates.

That’s a nearly 10-point decline since 2011 to 2013, making it the fourth lowest rate in the nation.

“While reunification has been the stated goal in Kentucky for many years, I don't necessarily know if that was the goal in practice on the side of our courts and the Cabinet for Health and Family Services,” said Shannon Moody, Chief Policy and Strategy Officer at Kentucky Youth Advocates.

When a judge or child welfare workers are determining whether to reunify a child with their parents, Moody said the state tends to lean on the side of caution. If there is any concern that reunification would jeopardize the safety of the child, they tend to rule against it.

This means less kids are being reunited with their families and more kids are staying in the system longer.

Kentucky had more than 8,300 children in foster care in 2021. The vast majority of the children were removed from their homes due to neglect, which could include things like alcohol or drug abuse, domestic violence and inadequate housing.

“We’re also seeing more complex cases, especially when you're talking about substance abuse and significant mental health issues,” Moody said. “The interventions and the supply of treatment is not meeting the demand still.”

Moody says if the state had more resources in the area of family preservation, it would likely increase the number of kids being reunified. With more access to things like therapy, high quality parenting classes, drug intervention, employment services and child care, the state could help support struggling parents and keep more families together.

The state seems to be moving in that direction. Between 2018 and 2022, the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services spent $11.2 million more on prevention based services and $79.1 million less on out of home foster care.

But Moody said it takes time to build out the programming and services that lead to family reunification.

The pandemic also created barriers and potentially delayed the impact of some of those efforts.

“With the COVID-19 pandemic, what we saw were timelines in court going way up and kids lingering in care for longer amounts of time,” Moody said. “Basically, the courts came to a grinding halt for a time.”

The issues caused by the pandemic were also compounded by a significant exodus of child welfare employees, and specifically front-line social workers, due to low pay and unmanageable caseloads. In response, Gov. Andy Beshear increased salaries for social workers and family support staff in 2021.

Without staff to ensure families are getting connected to the resources they need, fewer parents are able to meet the criteria for reunification, she said.

The state has started to see modest improvement in its effort to retain child welfare workers. Turnover rates for the state's front-line social workers, for instance, declined from 40% in 2021 to 34% in 2022.

As the state makes improvements and continues to invest in prevention and reunification resources, Moody said she’s hopeful that more kids will be able to stay with their families.

“We're really trying to figure out how to ensure that the child welfare system is less focused on removing children or policing families, and more about getting families connected so that they can remain whole,” she said.

Support for this story was provided in part by the Jewish Heritage Fund.

Jasmine Demers is an investigative reporter for LPM covering youth and social services. She is a corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Email Jasmine at jdemers@lpm.org.

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