Parental-education provision cut
Foster-care adoption bill changed
Parental-education provision cut
By Valarie Honeycutt Spears
HERALD-LEADER STAFF WRITER
FRANKFORT - Many Kentucky parents find out too late that once their child is in foster care, an adoption by strangers can be imminent.
So there's been a lot of attention on one facet of a bill designed to help those parents: Judges were going to be required to tell biological parents orally and in writing that an adoption would be in the works within months if parents failed do everything social workers asked.
But the bill's sponsor quietly initiated cutting the provision last week, minutes after Cabinet for Health and Family Services Secretary Mark D. Birdwhistell described it to a state Senate committee as being necessary and key to protecting the rights of parents and children.
Child advocate Terry Brooks said he was "disappointed" to see the parent-education provision cut from the bill, especially since judges themselves suggested it. Brooks said that without a law that requires all judges to educate biological parents, there's no assurance that a judge will tell a family that they are on the verge of losing their child forever.
"The changes to the bill introduce a judicial lottery," Brooks said, "What happens to a child will depend upon what judge they get."
Lawmakers and attorneys suggested last week that the bill needs other improvements. The legislation doesn't give grandparents or extended relatives priority over strangers. And instead of increasing fees for court-appointed attorneys so they can do a better job for parents, some court-appointed attorneys fear that language in the bill actually has the effect of reducing fees.
However, state Sen. Ernesto Scorsone, D-Lexington, filed an amendment Friday that would allow judges to set fees for court-appointed attorneys.
The bill's sponsor, Sen. Julie Denton, R-Louisville, said Friday that the language mandating judges to educate parents orally and in writing was cut at the urging of the Administrative Office of the Courts, the division of state government that oversees judges and courts.
Denton, AOC official Patrick Yewell and Brooks, who is executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, all served together on the cabinet's blue-ribbon panel on adoption that drafted the legislation.
But Yewell, who requested the change in the bill, said he didn't protest the parent-education component earlier because he didn't know it would be in the bill until the day it was introduced. At that point, Denton said, AOC officials grew concerned that the legislative branch needed to be mindful of separation of powers in what lawmakers require of judges.
The blue-ribbon panel, charged with proposing improved laws, spent the last few months hearing from judges, attorneys, social workers and parents -- all of whom said the parent-education requirement was essential because parents aren't consistently told upfront that they are in danger of losing their child permanently.
Denton said she went along with the cut because she wanted to save the bill, which she thinks does many other good things for biological parents. In its current form, the legislation allows indigent parents to have an attorney for their first appearance in court, and gives them a few more days to prepare for court.
And Denton said she thought the intent of the bill had been preserved because it includes a new provision that allows Kentucky's chief justice to establish administrative rules regarding the rights of all parties involved in the cases.
Yewell said he couldn't say with certainty that the administrative procedures would do the same job as a law requiring judges to educate parents. But, he said, "I believe it will."
Cabinet officials who had heralded the concept of judges educating parents say they did not fight the cut because AOC officials told them it would be more efficient for the Kentucky chief justice to set rules for child protection and permanency.
The full Senate is scheduled to vote on the bill Tuesday.
Reach Valarie Honeycutt Spears at (859) 231-3409 or firstname.lastname@example.org