Report: State does poor job of protecting abused, neglected kids
LOUISVILLE, KY - Kentucky is unable to protect abused and neglected children from death or serious injury.
That was the finding of the most recent Child Fatality and Near Fatality annual report, which is compiled by judges, advocates, doctors, state law enforcement personnel and the state's department of social services.
For months, WAVE 3 News looked into Kentucky's Department of Community Based Services, which handles child abuse and foster care.
The annual report called the department "grossly underfunded and under-resourced."
Interviews with those closest to the system reveal a multitude of issues, many of which the state is aware of but simply hasn't provided any resources to fix. The result is an increase in child abuse and death.
Family Court Judge Paula Sherlock has served in Jefferson County for more than a decade. Nearly every day, she said, she sees the problems in DCBS firsthand.
"Family Court is frustrating because you really never see anything happy here," Sherlock said. "The police find these kids wandering through the streets wearing diapers."
Lately, Sherlock has seen the toll drugs are taking on the system, even describing cases where children have stepped over passed-out family members on their way out the door to school.
"Heroin has just been devastating," Sherlock said. "They abjectly neglect them. There's no food in the house. The kids aren't going to school."
According to state records, the number of children removed from their homes because of their parents' drug use has more than doubled in Jefferson County over the past decade, going from 76 in 2005 to 159 in 2015.
Tim Feeley is Deputy Secretary for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, and he's partially responsible for DCBS.
"The drug problem -- particularly the opioid addiction -- has made a huge strain on the system," Feeley said.
The strain is being felt by people like Pam Peevler. She became a foster parent, along with her husband Barry, partially because her mother was treated poorly in an orphanage as a child.
"When we get a child, that's the No. 1 cause for them being in our house -- drug use," she said. "I'm trying to be the parent that they never got to have."
Right now, Peevler is taking care of two foster children. Both children had parents struggling with drug addiction.
"We have a little boy that's 10 that's lost his mom," Peevler said. "When we got him, he had lost his father. Now, he's parentless. Now we have to try to help that child walk through the steps of a healing process, and it's gut-wrenching."
It's a tragically common situation.
"We're affected when we hear these stories," Peevler said. "It's heartbreaking."
The statistics are equally grim.
State records show around 5,000 children enter the foster care system every year, with more than 500 coming just from Jefferson County.
"Our system is failing the kids because there's not enough funding to get them the care that's needed," Peevler said.
While more and more children enter the system, there aren't enough foster families like Peevler to keep up.
"We have a lot of families that are very dedicated but we need more," Feeley said.
Cynthia Schepers is one of the kids who made it through the system, and is now enrolled at the University of Louisville. Funding for college is a bright spot in the foster-care system. Schepers' story isn't as bright.
"I just think there's not enough awareness about it," Schepers said of the system.
She lost her father to cancer and her mother to an overdose. Her grandmother took care of her and her brother, but at 13, the state took her away from her grandmother for neglect.
"She wasn't feeding us the right foods and making us go to school, but me and my brother didn't know any differently," Schepers said.
After the neglect at home with family, she had to deal with emotional abuse in various foster homes.
"If you tell your state workers or your case managers, 'Hey, this is what (my) foster mom is doing to me, they don't really take it seriously,'" Schepers said.
Added Feeley: "We're doing what we can with the resources we have. All the workers that we have there are very dedicated."
In the past five years, the number of calls to the state about abuse has gone up more than 50 percent, to 126,858 calls in 2016. The number of workers to investigate them has stayed the same, around 1,700. That's roughly 70 cases per person.
"We readily admit we have a workforce problem," Feeley said. "What we don't do as well is all the follow-up because that follow up takes time, takes worker time and very often they have to shift to the next case."
DCBS filters out calls, but the fatality and near-fatality report explains that hasn't worked well.
"Due to current caseloads and inadequate funding, the process for screening out cases may also serve to control workload," the report reads. "This practice can leave children at risk."
The report even found that some children who suffered deadly and serious injuries had cases that were screened out. Had that process not happened, it may have "led to a different outcome."
As a foster parent, Peevler has seen children suffer.
"He and I had a case once where the children had left our care," she said. "Two weeks later. we get a call where that child was in a hospital and had been injured by the parents. We know that there are thousands out there that are going through abuse."
For all its problems, there may be a way to help the system.
The fatality and near-fatality report strongly recommends family drug courts, a system once used as a pilot program in Jefferson County before being taken away due to budget cuts.
Judge Sherlock fully supports them.
"This is a real critical need," Sherlock said. "We're working really hard to bring our family drug court back."
The court system builds a treatment plan like with normal drug courts, but instead of the motivation being to stay out of jail, it's also to keep custody of a child or children, which serves as a higher motivation to stay clean.
"We feel like we have families at a real critical teaching moment because we've either taken their kids away or we're on the verge of taking their kids away," Sherlock said.
Studies show it works. According to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, family drug courts are 20 to 30 percent more likely than normal drug courts to get a person clean.
"There's a lot of accountability in that program," Sherlock said. "You don't just leave the courtroom and you're out on your own. You leave the courtroom. You have a set of tasks to do. You have to be back here in a week, and those things have to be done."
Added Feeley: "I'd love it to be funded again."
The program keeps kids from being pushed into foster care, which keeps a family together and it saves money by not having to pay for foster care.
The same fatality and near fatality report more bluntly states drug courts "may save children's lives."
Like with most of the issues surrounding DCBS, however, there is no money for the program.
"The frustrating thing is we never have enough resources for the problems that we're dealing with and the problems, particularly substance abuse, are not going away," Sherlock said.
Feeley was a family court judge for 11 years and said certain cases leave him as frustrated as anyone.
"Have we fixed everything? No," Feeley said. "Is there a lot that we're working on? Yes."
"It's a fight worth fighting and we need to keep fighting and we need to keep educating our legislators," Sherlock said.
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