If Hurricane Harvey's record rainfall doused the fiery political climate, then the images of rescue workers saving children have softened embittered hearts in our politically divisive age. One evocative photo depicts a disaster relief worker slogging through muddied Houston waters carrying an Asian woman who is cradling her infant.
Yet as Harvey leaves the battered Southeast Texas coast for disaster relief workers, there is another crisis involving children and it's looming in the shadows of every Kentucky community. There is no hurricane. There is no 24/7 news coverage. It's a tragedy nonetheless. I'm talking about the 8,572 children cast adrift in Kentucky's foster care system and left without permanent families.
Just a few days ago, boats were going door to door in Houston neighborhoods rescuing entire families, but who exactly will come to the rescue of Kentucky's kids who don't have permanent homes to begin with? Nearly 2000 are available for adoption right now. That's just under 17 kids per county.
I recently talked with Kentucky's newly appointed Adoption Czar Dan Dumas, who is spearheading major change in a system that many see as dysfunctional. Dumas said that after immersing himself into the foster care system, he's seeing more than he may have bargained for. "I've cried more in the last 80 days than I have in the last 51 years," Dumas said.
Dumas is witnessing kids coming into the system traumatized and abused, but even more troubling is knowing they're coming into a broken system, one apparently stuck in status quo mode while kids languish, and wait. "It's a really difficult space," Dumas said. "It's a very hard thing to deal with." He says that there needs to be a new sense of urgency to find them homes.
The Department of Health and Family Services (DHFS) is responsible for Kentucky's children in foster care but bureaucracy, secrecy, and protection of its own image stand in their way. Last year, the agency was slapped with a $1 million fine for obstructing an open records request into the high-profile death of a Western Kentucky girl. Kentucky Court of Appeals Judge Irv Maze wrote an opinion castigating the agency's "culture of secrecy" and "systematic and categorical disregard for the rule of law." It was a wake-up call.
Mistakes are costly, especially when they involve the most vulnerable among us. But another cost accrues when we fail to aggressively place children in permanent homes. Each child in foster care costs the state of Kentucky an average of $53,000 per year. While human life cannot be quantified merely in dollars and cents, Kentuckians pay over $450 million a year in foster care.
Dumas, a former executive at Southern Seminary and recruited by Gov. Matt Bevin to fix the foster care system, received harsh criticism for his $240,000/year no-bid contract approved by a legislative committee on June 13. Incentives may allow for even greater pay, but if those goals are reached and more kids find permanent homes, Kentucky taxpayers may be getting their monies worth. For example, if the 2000 foster children available for adoption were permanently placed, it would save Kentucky taxpayers more than $100 million per year.
Dumas said his goal is to make the "adoption and foster care system faster, safer, more affordable, and more accessible." Kentucky Youth Advocates Director Terry Brooks praised the appointment. So did Kentucky Baptist Convention Executive Director Paul Chitwood.
Not everyone can become a foster or adoptive parent but there are other ways to help according to Dumas. Mentors are needed. So are respite-care providers and life-skills teachers. People can also donate to any of the 101 licensed foster care facility nonprofits that care for children.
"Our backs are against the wall… No one person can fix the problem. But together we can." Dumas said. "We need to join hearts, join hands. It's a collective effort."
Sounds a little bit like the efforts in Houston doesn't it? An added benefit is that focussing on kids who are less fortunate turns down the political heat that puts us at odds with one another; in the end we're improving the lives of Kentucky children by fixing foster care.
Richard Nelson is the executive director of the Commonwealth Policy Center, a Kentucky-based nonprofit public policy organization. He resides in Cadiz with his wife and children.