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Kentucky law to keep kids out of foster care got bipartisan, if not budgetary, support

Senate Majority Caucus Chair Julie Raque Adams, a Louisville Republican, confers with Sen. Stephen Meredith about the implementation of Senate Bill 151 during an Interim Joint Committee on Families and Children meeting.
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Senate Majority Caucus Chair Julie Raque Adams, a Louisville Republican, confers with Sen. Stephen Meredith about the implementation of Senate Bill 151 during an Interim Joint Committee on Families and Children meeting.

Seeming miscommunication between Kentucky cabinet officials and a lawmaker could mean legislation designed to extend benefits to relative caregivers and keep kids out of foster care won’t be implemented over the next two fiscal years.

No lawmaker in either chamber voted against Senate Bill 151 this year. It’s a law that gives relatives who agree to take care of abused or neglected children more time to apply for foster care benefits. There aren’t a lot of high-profile bills that no legislator takes issue with, but SB 151 looked like one of them.

Lawmakers seem to agree that the best thing for children is to stay with a relative or fictive kin caregiver whenever possible, and that the state has the responsibility to assist those families.

“It’s moving our policy in a direction of giving these kids to a trusted family member — a grandparent or an aunt or an uncle or somebody that they have a connection with,” said Louisville Sen. Julie Raque Adams, who sponsored the bill. “All the studies and all the research shows that that is the best thing for a child that is taken out of a home.”

Now, two months after the end of session and less than a month until its set to take effect, cabinet officials told the bill's sponsor it's not going to happen.

In a committee meeting last week, Adams questioned a representative for the Department for Community Based Services. She appeared baffled as Lesa Dennis, the commissioner of the department, which manages the state’s foster care system, told Adams the money simply isn’t there.

“At this time, we are still hopeful in the near future that there will be an additional pathway for funding of Senate Bill 151, but without that support, we will have difficulty moving forward with implementation,” Dennis said.

Cabinet officials sent two letters to Adams before the end of the session, informing her and other legislators of the estimated price tag for the legislation. Kentucky Public Radio reviewed those letters. In the second letter, the department said SB 151 would cost $20 million to implement.

They said more people would be receiving aid, and they need more staff to process those applications. But the second letter didn’t happen until after the bill had passed and Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear signed it into law. Adams said she believed she had resolved any funding issues with edits she made to the bill.

“While the governor signed and supports the bill that would help our children and families, about $20 million would be needed to provide the services, and, on multiple occasions, the administration relayed this information,” Crystal Staley, a spokesperson for the governor, said. “Lawmakers had the opportunity to deliver the funding during the session but chose not to.”

On social media, the Republican Party of Kentucky has hammered Beshear for not finding the funding for the legislation.

“This bill cleared both chambers with total bipartisan support. Andy even signed it into law! Now, Beshear officials are saying they WILL NOT implement SB 151!” the party posted on X.

Stephanie French, a spokesperson for the cabinet overseeing foster care in the state, said in a statement that the administration cannot implement policies that don’t come with funding.

“We’re supportive of the bill, but there is a cost that must be addressed before implementation can occur,” French said. “Since February, the communication from the administration has been clear about the funding required to implement the services.”

Rep. Sarah Stalker, a Louisville Democrat and former foster parent, said she intends to get to the bottom of the dispute, which she attributes to miscommunication. At the end of the day, Stalker says her goal is to see kids placed with relatives, whenever possible.

“My goal is to make it happen,” Stalker said. “If there was a miscommunication, at the end of the day, are we going to fund it? As a state, as a legislative body at any level of government, we have a responsibility to take care of these kids.”

A lack of communication

Adams provided Kentucky Public Radio with a copy of a fiscal impact statement, dated the day before the bill’s first February committee hearing. It purports the bill would not cost the state any money.

But just a few days later, the Cabinet for Health and Family Services’s Secretary Eric Friedlander sent a letter to Adams, requesting a meeting. The message included an impact statement that the cabinet prepared with a significantly different interpretation.

The attached statement estimated several potential costs that would not be federally-reimbursable — more than $100 million.

“The cabinet is happy to work with you on language that would defray the cost for the cabinet, ensure that federal guidelines are met, and also meet the needs of relative and fictive kin caregivers,” Friedlander wrote in the email to Sen. Adams.

Adams said she did meet with Friedlander to discuss his concerns and that led to a committee substitute. Instead of allowing a relative caregiver to apply for foster home benefits any time “before or after” the child is placed with them, the new version of the bill would give the caregiver up to 120 days to apply for those benefits. A qualifying life event, which the cabinet would get to establish through regulations, would also allow a caregiver to apply to become a foster home, thus qualifying for financial support.

According to Adams, she thought that change fixed the problem and that the department would be able to absorb any cost of the bill.

“If they had a budgetary or a physical concern, it should have been communicated to the bill sponsor,” Adams said. “I am the bill sponsor, and there was no communication between me or the cabinet that this was cost prohibitive.”

The bill passed the legislature March 27, and Gov. Andy Beshear signed it April 5. Five days later, Beshear sent a letter to all legislators. He included a list of every bill he said did not receive funding in the two-year budget, including several he had just signed. One of those bills is SB 151.

The same day, Friedlander sent his own letter specifically on SB 151. He said the estimated cost is $20 million, with the assumption that just half of the relative caregivers already registered with the cabinet chose to apply to be a foster parent. By then, the budget was all but finalized and the session drawing to a close. The legislature passed the budget into law two days later, with no additional funding for SB 151.

Adams holds that, despite that final communication, she was under the impression that the bill didn’t need any funding. She said regardless of whatever costs the department is claiming, they have to find the money.

“They [are saying] to the kids or the commonwealth, ‘Oh, well, we don't want to do this now,’” Adams said. “It's the right policy. I went through the normal channels for that legislation. The governor signed it into law. And it's now incumbent upon them to do right by the kids of Kentucky.”

The Department of Community Based Services has a $1.7 billion budget in each of the next two fiscal years, but more than half of that is tied up in tobacco settlement funds, restricted dollars and federal funding. Another $100 million of the $726 million in general funds – often spent on operating costs – is dedicated to specific programs.

Both Adams and Stalker said they hope to work with the cabinet to find the money within that remaining operating budget. The cabinet did not respond by deadline to a request on how they arrived at their $20 million price tag.

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Sylvia is the Capitol reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Lexington, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email her at sgoodman@lpm.org.

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