Austin Ramsey, reporter for the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer explains:
There are some 8,000 Kentucky children living in out-of-home care right now, according to the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services. In the Two Rivers Department for Community Based Services Region serving Daviess County and 16 others in west-central Kentucky, about 11 percent of that population resides in hundreds of private child care foster homes, residential units and relative placements.
The number of intakes in Daviess County has grown by 13 percent in just five years, and Daviess District Court Judge Lisa Jones said the reason seems clear.
There is some disagreement about whether sweeping reforms to the juvenile justice system last year have contributed to the spike in intakes. Senate Bill 200 established community intervention response teams charged with keeping children out of jail and holding families more accountable for underage behavior. Jones said the cabinet feared the legislation could flood the service region intake centers with cases.
A flood came, she said, but it seemed to be unrelated to the new law. Only about 40 of the new cases were reported by the response teams statewide, she said.
Instead, she said, drugs were responsible.
Two Rivers is the largest service region in the state, and it sees the highest number of intakes where substance abuse directly contributed to the cabinet's involvement. Drugs and alcohol-related abuse and neglect almost outweigh the number of mental health and family violence cases combined in the region. These cases result in reports listing maltreatment such as basic neglect, physical assault, sexual abuse, risk of harm and environmental issues, among others.
Some cases of neglect in particular can be handled without being filed in court, Jones said. Social service workers with the cabinet are assigned to children and families once a complaint is substantiated, and sometimes basic family services such as counseling, financial planning, stress management or child care can alleviate the problem. Even if parents don't immediately cooperate with the cabinet, attorneys, social workers and the judge can work together to develop a case plan in a pretrial conference or adjudication. Families are often eventually re-established by order of the court in the disposition phase. But once a case becomes criminal -- aggravated by the presence of illegal substances -- children can become dependent on the state if all of their legal guardians are facing charges.
Children then can become collateral in the complex judicial process, said Daviess County Attorney Claud Porter.
Studies for decades have suggested a link between abuse, poverty, drugs and crime and adverse childhoods needled by those same issues. Jones said she has spent enough time in the judicial system to see the affects of child abuse, neglect and dependency re-emerge.
"I'm to the point now where I'm seeing that second generation come through," she said. "I'm seeing the children of the children, and I'm asking myself how could we prevent another generation of this cycle? I'm hearing these cases and seeing this heartbreak every day. All I wonder is, what can you do to make that difference for the others?"
Foster (Who) Cares?
For those children who are separated from their nuclear families and thrust into the largely privatized foster care system in Kentucky, the future can look grim.
Cabinet data shows that on average, kids in Kentucky spend about two years under state care before a more permanent solution can be found.
The problem is complicated by the fact that money is what drives it, says Julie Gordon, of Gordon Law Offices in Owensboro. Gordon is a guardian ad litem, so she can be appointed by a judge to investigate solutions that would be in the "best interests of the child." Sometimes, she said, the foster care system just isn't.
So often children are removed from their families to avoid immediate or further physical or emotional abuse, but that trauma doesn't necessarily end by entering the system. Almost every child moves around between multiple homes and residence centers, and the mental toll of insecurity and trust issues is heavy.
"There is no case where a kid is uprooted from his or her home and put in the care of a stranger that doesn't cause trauma," she said. "We are traumatizing children. The question is if the trauma they're already undergoing at home is worse than the trauma we are inflicting on them."
Most foster parents in Kentucky are trained and authorized to accept children in their home not by the cabinet but by a private company. A foster parent will make more money as a private child care provider than a public one. As the children navigate the system, however, the cabinet assigns them "levels" between 1 and 5. A level 5 child is considered more physically or emotionally needy. Unfortunately, Gordon said, the higher the level, too, the more the cabinet authorizes a private company to pay the parent for foster services. Quite literally, she said, it is financially beneficial to have a worse-off child than one whose conditions are improving.
"I've had foster parents tell me that their case manager will come and ask them how things are going," she said. "The parents might say, you know, that things are going great; a kid may have pitched a fit and slammed a door, but it was handled. Eventually, you learn the language to raise the kid a level. Instead of saying they 'pitched a fit,' it would be recorded as the child being 'defiant and oppositional' and 'displaying violent behavior.' All they did was slam a door, but nobody is asking for the specifics."
Not all foster parents are involved for the wrong reasons, she said -- not even most -- but Kentucky is failing children because there aren't enough family preservation services in place. The state needs experienced, qualified professionals to intervene and step alongside families at the level of abuse and neglect all the way to foster system, she said.
It's impossible, Gordon said, for someone who hasn't experienced early childhood trauma to understand the decision-making processes that it modifies. Often, she said, these children are afraid of adults, and they don't know how to express their emotions. Instead of a monetized system designed to punish them, there should be a public system designed to help them and their families.
There is a group of local leaders, organizations and agencies in Owensboro aiming to end the cycle of child abuse and neglect. They are looking for strategies to implement a comprehensive public health initiative that will prevent childhood adversity and promote family resilience.
At the helm of this task force are the Court Appointed Special Advocates of the Ohio Valley. They want people to understand that everyone can play a role in becoming trauma-informed and inciting resiliency. After all, some say it's the only factor that can make the difference in the lives of children.
In the wake of April's one-day child-abuse conference in Owensboro, these organizations have continued to hold meetings and focused their efforts toward trauma-informed community building. It's in its infancy, but by later this month, CASA Executive Director Rosemary Conder said she believes there may be a local vision for action. It's necessary, because the risks for area children are real.
"The more that there is instability in a child's life, the more traumatic instances build up," Conder said. "When a traumatic event happens to a child, their brain is not developed like an adult's, so it's imprinted on their brain. That trauma actually alters the development of the brain. The children are developmentally delayed, socially delayed and, many times, physically hurt."
Abused children are at a higher risk for heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, mental illness, suicide, drug abuse, promiscuity and criminal activity.
But overcoming that is possible, she added. Why is it that of two children who have had the same adverse and abusive childhood experiences, one may be able to overcome them and grow into a positive contributor to society while the other can slip into the cycle of poverty, crime and abuse? Conder said research indicates that the answer to that question is resiliency. Positive adult influences can make all the difference in a child's life. It's hard to say how many or how much, but children need love and care, and if their parents aren't able to provide it, they will look for it elsewhere.
Sometimes it comes down to CASA advocates. They're appointed by a judge to give children voices in the justice system, and they often remain with children from the point at which they leave a permanent home until they find a new one.
Barbara Embrey is one such advocate in Daviess County. Some of the abuses she has seen have rocked her to her core, she said, but she's glad to have had the opportunity to be there to show young people that there are adults who care about who and where they are.
"There have to be certain people in a child's life who will encourage them and help them," she said. "It's the only way to help."
Charlene Salpietra, who serves on CASA's executive board, was the advocate who aided Arwyn, Hunter and Dakota all those years ago. To this day, the reunited family stays in touch with her, largely because of the love and care she showed Broshears and her children.
She recalls a story when Hunter was having behavior problems at school, acting out and verbally abusing a principal. The police were called, but Salpietra said she was quick to get to the school before the officer intervened. She explained to him that, throughout the child's life in the foster system, she had never had seen him express his emotions.
"His father has died and his mom has gone to jail, and he's never broken down," she told the officer. "I had never seen him shed a tear. I'd seen the anger inside of him, but I'd never seen a little boy in his eyes or his actions. So, I asked the officer to show him a little tough love -- to show him that this was the life he could have forever if he doesn't fix it now. He was 11 years old, but he needed to know. The officer walked him through the halls of the school handcuffed and out the front, and finally, just as he opened up the squad car door, he turned and looked at me with the biggest tears welled up in his eyes and he said, 'Please, please don't take me away like Daddy.' That officer got down on his knees and looked him in the eyes and said, 'I want you to know that I'm here for you.' "
More people like that, she said, could cause a culture shift in a community and change children's lives for the better.
It's the LAW
Kentucky law requires mandatory reporting of child abuse, neglect or dependency, according to KRS 620.030. If you believe a child is being abused, call the Kentucky Child Protection Hot Line at 1-877-KYSAFE1 or the Two Rivers Central Intake Center at 270-651-0287.