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Kentucky Officials, Advocates Discuss Upcoming Changes To Child Welfare System

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About 800 people, including child welfare advocates, workers and families, gathered in Louisville Wednesday for the first Transformers of Child Welfare summit. 

Kentucky has access to new state and federal funds to help support struggling parents, thanks to legislation passed in 2018 by both Congress and the Kentucky General Assembly.

Department for Community-based Services Commissioner Eric Clark said when possible and safe to do so, the state wants to focus efforts on helping parents keep their kids instead of removing children from the home.

“This is not an approach where you don't bring kids in to care because it's a numbers game. But it's an approach where we look at prevention services — what do we need to put in place to put services and supports around families where they can thrive and prevent their children from being removed,” Clark said.

There are currently 9,700 children in foster care in Kentucky, about a 30 percent increase from 2014, according to the state. There are 5,000 foster homes in Kentucky but Clark said that’s still not enough. In addition to an insufficient number of foster homes, he said social workers carry heavy caseloads, an average of 30 cases a day involving children either potentially being taken out of the home or currently in foster care.

“It contributes to burnout, to a morale problem in the department, and it contributes to high turnover,” Clark said.

“And remember at the center of that child welfare spectrum is a child and a family. And when you have high turnover, it’s not fair to that child that every few months they have a new caseworker because we can’t keep [workers] on staff.”

Clark said social workers are called to homes during a time of crisis, when parents are suspected of neglecting or abusing children, and they have to make tough decisions. 

“Social workers will remove [children] too soon because they don't want a bad outcome for that child on their watch,” Clark said.

He said the state will have to change from looking at what an individual social worker did wrong to thinking about what the system did wrong.

“Maybe there were factors that contributed to that bad outcome that we need to take in consideration and change the system rather than blaming someone publicly for that bad outcome,” Clark said.

Kinship Care

According to the state, there are currently 96,000 children that have been taken out of their homes and placed with relatives in Kentucky — what the commonwealth refers to as Kinship Care. The state compensates extended family, step-relatives and other close family friends who take care of children removed from their parents due to neglect or abuse. But, in 2013 the state stopped accepting new applicants for the Kinship Care program because of costs.

Though there have been calls from advocates to reopen the program to new applicants, Clark said it’s not likely to happen.

“We cannot project the number of relatives who would come forward who want to qualify under the Kinship Care program if the moratorium was lifted,” he said.

Clark said the state is focusing more on providing other types of support for family caregivers – like food assistance and daycare – to help make raising a relative child easier.

Clark said the state will soon set timelines and external communications for how the changes will be implemented this year.

Lisa Gillespie is WFPL's Health and Innovation Reporter.