FRANKFORT, Ky. (KT) – The Kentucky House overwhelmingly approved a comprehensive bill that revitalizes the state’s child welfare system.
Following months of study, listening sessions, and bipartisan work, the lawmakers nearly unanimously passed adoption and foster care reforms. House Bill 1 will streamline the placement of children into homes, empower foster parents in the process, and make a multitude of other reforms that focus on doing what is best for children.
“Today is a victory for Kentucky’s children and families. The thousands of kids who have spent time languishing in state care represent the need for action – and that is what we delivered today,” said Rep. David Meade, R-Stanford, who co-chaired the House Working Group on Adoption with Rep. Joni Jenkins, D-Louisville. They had more than a half-dozen public meetings and numerous other gatherings with stakeholders, before issuing recommendations in December, and introducing the bill at the end of January.
One change made to the bill on the floor was to delete a provision that would allow charging the mother of a child born drug-addicted with a crime. Meade said that could have unintended consequences. “There have been some concerns that a mother may not seek pre-natal care, or not be able to deliver at a hospital, putting the health of the child at risk.”
He said it would still be grounds for termination of parental rights.
Another change would give grandparents who are caring for grandchildren more rights in court hearings, including legal representation at custody hearings.
The measure imposes timelines on the state and the court system to shorten the length of time children in state custody are in limbo. It would also direct state officials to automatically begin the process of terminating parental rights for any mother who gives birth to a drug-dependent baby and refuses to enter a drug rehabilitation program.
It also reduces the amount of bureaucracy and paperwork involved in the process, not only for adoptive parents, but for the social workers who must deal with ever-increasing foster care caseloads.
Kentucky has more than 8,600 children in state custody, a number that officials say has grown because of the opioid crisis.
Dr. Terry Brooks, executive director of the Kentucky Youth Advocates, commended Meade for his bipartisan leadership on House Bill 1.
"We applaud the diligent work of the House Working Group on Adoptions that has consistently prioritized what is best for the children who have experienced abuse and neglect. Representative Meade's leadership on this issue – in his work with co-chair Representative Jenkins, through the broad range of testimony and input gathered, and his inclusion of the perspectives of former foster youth – has resulted in a strong bill that makes the longtime idea about protecting our most vulnerable children a reality."
HB 1 would also establish a confidential putative father registry in Kentucky. Here, unmarried males who claim to be a father must register with the state no more than 30 days after the child’s birth to have input into the child’s adoption processes.
Rep. Linda Belcher, D-Shepherdsville, who was sworn into office on Tuesday, said people have been asking her how it feels to be back in the House.
“After hearing this bill today, I can tell you I’m excited to be back,” she said. “This affects me because my daughter worked with foster children, and even adopted a foster child. And I will tell you, it was not an easy process.”
The legislation also aims to give foster care parents a stronger voice in the process, by expanding foster care advisory boards and allowing more parental input.
Other key components include improving efforts to recruit and retain valuable social workers. That goal received a large boost when Gov. Matt Bevin proposed adding $24 million to hiring and increasing pay for social workers along with $10.8 million to improve the foster care placement process and adoption efforts in his two-year budget proposal.
More work on adoption and foster care could come in later years through the work of a Child Welfare Oversight and Advisory Committee that would also be created by HB 1. It would be the job of that committee to “review, analyze, and provide oversight to the General Assembly on child welfare” in the state.
House Majority Leader Johnathan Shell, R-Lancaster said he voted for the bill for three reasons: “One because I am so proud of the work done by Meade; two, because my 7-year-old son Jackson is adopted; and three, because of the 8,000 kids that are in foster care and so many more that need loving homes.”
Jenkins said everyone came to the table with an open mind. “This legislation will live on and on, because of the new committee it created. If there are things that are not exactly right with this piece of legislation as we go forward, this legislation will be back every year to monitor those things and be able to make changes as needed.”
The bill passed 94-1, and now heads to the Senate.
Rep. Attica Scott, D-Louisville, cast the lone no vote. She did not explain her opposition, but did ask questions during discussion about the putative father registry the bill creates.